Who Will Raise the San Jose Treasure Ship

Somewhere off the coast of Columbia, lies the Holy Grail of Sunken Treasure. The 300-year-old San Jose Spanish Warship is expected to recover $17 billion. The find is the biggest in the history of Treasure Hunting. The question is, who does the treasure belong to and how are the claims determined? Who will raise the San Jose Treasure Ship?

Who raises the San Jose Treasure Ship Depends on:
  • Is the shipwreck in Territorial or International Waters
  • Is it a Treasure Hunt or a Salvage Operation
  • Is the shipwreck in the 3-mile nautical range off the US coastline
  • is the shipwreck the remains of the US or any foreign government’s property


    The strange but true quest for the biggest booty in history starts 300 years ago. It ends, 30 years ago, then begins again with a huge court battle that will now determine if the gray areas of Maritime Law can settle this billion-dollar fight between a team of American Treasure Hunters and the government of Colombia.


Spanish Galleon San Jose


In December of 2015, the Columbian government announced the discovery of what could be the most valuable shipwreck ever discovered. The Holy Grail of sunken ships is the story that books and movies are made about.

The only problem was that an American-based salvage company called Sea Search Armada, immediately staked a claim and said in 1982 they registered the claim on the find to the same ship. A court battle for ownership rights is scheduled for this coming year.

Colombia’s Minister of Culture Mariana Garces-Cordoba had made public statements back in 2015 that San Jose is not where the company claimed to have found it in 1982. SSA managing director Jack Harbeston provided an English translation of the letter to National Geographic.

The San Jose Warship was one of the largest Galleons lost in 1708 in a surface battle against the British Navy. The San Jose was trying to enter Cartagena with a cargo full of gold mixed with silver bars when it went down. Before the ship could enter the port of Cartehena it was intercepted by the British. During an ensuing gun battle, the magazine exploded on the San Jose which ended up on the bottom of the Caribbean Sea. The ship had an estimated fortune onboard of gold, silver, and emeralds worth up to 15 to 20 million dollars.


The 62-gun, three-masted galleon known as the ‘San Jose’ went down off the coast of Columbia on June 8, 1708. Along with it, all 600 people on board, as well as treasures of gold, silver, and emeralds, were dragged to the ocean’s bed during an exchange with the British where they would remain for the next 300 years.

In recent years, oceanographers have discovered that the total value of gold and jewels on board the vessel is $22 billion, making it the most valuable shipwreck discovery of all time.

In 1981 the American company Sea Search Armada set out to Cartahania to hunt for the Ship somewhere off the coast of Columbia, the exact coordinates still remain a secret today. They knew of the treasure and history and negotiated a deal with the Columbian government.

The company hired historians that traveled to Spain and Great Britain to put together the pieces of history that would aid them in finding every detail of the famous ship. They put together countless amounts of documents and information that they gathered from ships’ Captain’s records in Spain and England and recreated the battle that sunk the ship.


Who Found The San Jose Treasure Ship


 James Bannigan who was the Vice President of Sea Search Armada put together a team of ships that included a Survey Vessel and an (ROV) a Remote Operated Underwater Vehicle and a submarine. A remotely operated underwater vehicle is a tethered underwater mobile device. ROVs are unoccupied, highly maneuverable, and operated by a crew either aboard a vessel/floating platform or on proximate land. They are used by Salvage operations in deep water industries. They are linked to a host ship by a neutrally buoyant tether or, often when working in rough conditions or in deeper water.

The Submarine’s Captain was Jon Swann. They began by surveying the area and laid out grid patterns to develop a search. Within weeks of the search, discovered the wreckage and a debris field on the sea bottom of the area. They deployed their ROV and took pictures near the bottom.

The crew was able to take a wood sample from the debris field and sent it to a nearby laboratory for a Carbon Dating Test. The result was that the wood was indeed from the time era of the San Jose ship.

On the 10th of December captain, Jon Swann returned with the Auguste Piccard his submarine. They reported that they believed to have found the wreck of the San Jose. Their crew witness it in the sun and even took pictures of the wreck sitting on the bottom. Through the observation ports in the front of their submarine, they saw cannons laying in front of them. “Undoubtedly” they were convinced” they had recovered the remains of San Jose”

  • The Submarine Auguste Piccard 
  • The first sign of treasure-Cannons
  • The Treasure map
  • Salvage Sea Search Armada
An agreement was written up between the Salvage Sea Search and the Colombian government to split the treasure 50-50 share for the ships’ recovery.

Soon after they notified the government of the discovery the Colombians sent armed Secret Service guards to arrest the crew members at the salvage site and they were brought back to Cartagena in Columbia.

The Colombian government changed its deal with the Sea Search Armada now wanting 95% of the proceeds recovered from the ship. The members of Salvage Sea Search left Colombia with nothing but vowing that would return and have their day in court.

Maritime Salvage Law

When it comes to the law of the sea it’s not clear who owns what. There is a legal definition here that is the basis for this. The question is was the discovery of the treasure Salvaged or was it found on a Treasure Hunt. Under International Law, someone recovers the property of someone else and then returns that property to the rightful owner for a reward is on a Salvage mission. Treasure Hunting, on the other hand, means exploration aimed at unearthing antiquities and other valuables from shipwrecks for financial gain.


“Treasure hunting is not necessarily salvage, because salvage is the right to be compensated by the owner where the owner is known and you’re in a position to return the property to him,” said William Moreira, a Halifax lawyer and former president of the Canadian Maritime Law Association.
“Typically in treasure-hunting cases, that’s not so, just because the stuff’s been lost for so long that no owner could come forward.”

In 2009 a Salvage Recovery Company called Odyssey Marine Exploration much like, the Salvage Sea Search company that is dealing with the Colombian government found treasure. The treasure was from a sunken British War ship 264 years ago. The Company believes there is up to 4 tons of gold that are on the ship. The British govenment has not made decisions whether it will work with Salvage Companies. They say that “Assuming the wreck is indeed that of a British warship, her remains are sovereign immune,” a spokesman said on condition of anonymity in keeping with government policy. “This means that no intrusive action may be taken without the express consent of the United Kingdom.”


The Spanish government is suing Odyssey in Federal Court in Tampa, Florida in order to claim the treasure. The Salvage company also found two years earlier to this a wreck in the Atlantic. A Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes y las Animas, sank off the coast of Portugal. The shipwreck is nick-named “The Black Swan” It is estimated that the Black Swan carries around 500 million dollars worth of gold bullion. Spain’s claim in court is that their Country never gave up on finding the treasure, arguing they never gave up on the shipwreck.


Laws of the Sea


This argument apparently happens all the time, especially when after the Salvage companies do the work, spend the money and find what they are looking for.

Also important to these cases is, Location. This is based on whether the find lies in the country’s Territorial Waters. This holds huge weight on the legal court rulings for the Treasure hunter’s rights to the “finders keepers” rule.

It is based on the Laws Of The Sea that is set by the United Nations.  In that state, most countries have a limit of territorial waters of 12 nautical miles from their coastline out to sea.

Also according to the Laws of the Sea any one that finds a wreck has to report it by law. The 1989 International Convention on Salvage says the salvor, or finder, “may be deprived of the whole or part of the payment due … if the salvor has been guilty of fraud or other dishonest conduct.”

What’s cut and dry may be, is that if you find a sunken shipwreck that is located less than 12 nautical miles from the coast of America then it would be considered American property according to International Law.

If the same ship is 15 nautical miles off the coast of America then whatever you find is yours, unless whoever used to own it a few centuries ago declares that the ship and the cargo belong to them and they were still making plans to salvage it someday. This is when you bring the Lawyers, Guns & Money.

A new Commission had been set up in 2001 to help determine best practices for underwater excavation projects. The UNESCO  Convention on Underwater Cultural Heritage provides guidelines that are required for people involved with the site management of underwater finds. They have volunteered to oversee the settling claims here for each party involved with the cases.

Some Maritime Laws still say that the countries who once owned the sunken ships, even if it was 300 years ago, can still petition the court for ownership rights. So if a ship that once belonged to your country is lying in the territorial waters of another country, you still can claim it. This makes the law not only grayer but extremely complicated and constantly changing.

The Country of Spain vs the  Odyssey Salvage company that found the “Black Swan” and the cargo of 500 million dollars was ordered by the Federal Court in Tampa to bring half the money they took from the ship’s treasure and give it back to Spain.

Spain never gave up on the ruling. They declared that they never disowned the ship and that the ship’s contents (Gold) were part of their Nation’s Cultural Heritage. 

Then, Peru made a claim in the same Federal Court in Tampa Florida. Based on the Origins of the contents. You see before the ship sank. The  “Black Swan”  origins and gold were from Peru, they were mined there while Peru was part of the Spanish Empire. They now want a piece of the pie based on the Right of Origin submitted claims.


Who Will Keep The ‘Holy Grail’ of Sunken Treasure


Last year in 2017, new details emerged about the San Jose, a Spanish galleon sunk by British ships more than 300 years ago. The ship was transporting billions of dollars worth of gold and rare gems that were mined in the South American Colonies and were being taken to Spain’s King Philip V to help finance the war of Spanish Succession.

Columbia said that it first discovered the Booty in 2015 off the coast of Cartagena. Last year, the president Juan Manuel Santos said the salvage operation “begins a new chapter in the cultural and scientific history, not only of Colombia but of the entire world”.

With the help of a team of marine archaeologists who uses the help of an underwater robot, I started an investigation and have published new information about what has been uncovered so far. Some people have already speculated it could be the most valuable shipwreck of all time and worth billions. The wreck of San Jose is an epic type of shipwreck that isn’t found every day. “The ocean is the greatest museum said one of the says marine archaeologists” Peter Campbell.

According to the lawyer for this group of archeologists, the contents of the San Jose could be the property of two different countries according to International Law. For example, the ship’s original owner has a viable right to ownership. But that right can be superseded by the country which owns the national waters in which the ship was discovered. When a ship has been discovered, the country where the ship was registered can point to something called sovereign immunity (in addition to claims of ownership).

This refers to a specific category of ships that are immune from legal proceedings by another state. Warships and other government ships operated for non-commercial purposes enjoy sovereign immunity. This is what happened with the court ruling for The Country of Spain vs The Odyssey Salvage Company.


Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987, “the U.S. government and state governments have the right to claim any abandoned shipwreck that is embedded in-ground and submerged in U.S. waters up to three nautical miles from the U.S. coastline, as well as any abandoned shipwrecks found in interior navigable waters in the U.S. and its possessions.”

There was no mention of the people that found the treasure more than 30 years ago.  Mr.Campbell also mentions that they find in this business that the operational costs of the archaeological investigation can be higher than the value of the wreck itself. Even though the speculation on the contents of the ship might just skyrocket. Becoming a Treasure Hunter has become a risky business in the last couple of decades.

The Salvage Company puts the money out and hires the personnel and finds the booty. Naturally, they want a reward for finding riches that have been sitting on the bottom of the ocean for hundreds of years.

The Country of Origin who once owned the boat may want a cut. The Country’s waters where the ship lies if in their Territorial Waters may want a cut. Countries that were once part of a country, such as Peru, which was part of Spain in that time era may want their piece. Then you have all gray areas that only a court ruling can resolve and that could take years. Treasure Hunting doesn’t have an exotic flair like it used to.


The US  laws of Salvage say that ships on the sea should help one another. A vessel that is in trouble depends on other vessels on the sea to help them. If another vessel puts itself in danger or the seaman risks their life to help the seaman or recover a ship that is sinking or already sunk then they are entitled to some compensation.

These are the responsibilities that are based on American Maritime Law. The person who helps recover the crew, passengers, or contents of a ship is known as Salvor. The Salvor has the responsibility to surrender the contents and the ship as long as the Salvor is compensated for this duty. If the owner refuses to honor the law then the Salvor should surrender the ship or its contents to the United States Marshal and seek a maritime lien against the owner.

The award is normally based on

  • Risk the Salvor took
  • The difficulty of the rescue or salvage
  • Value of the goods rescued from the ship

Typically the Salvage operation is 10-25% of the total value of the property that the Salvor rescues. In some cases, the cost of the Salvor is up to 50%.


Treasure Finders

A different set of rules may apply if the shipwreck is discovered unintentionally or through Treasure Hunting. It’s called Laws of Find. If a ship is found and the owners have not been looking for it actively for some time, then this law may apply.

If a person finds a ship through this way they could be entitled to the whole booty. This is different than the law of salvage and sees the discoverer as working for the owner of the wreck and therefore is owed compensation or a percentage of the value.

The exception to the Finds Law is determined by Abandoned Shipwrecked Act in 1987 which says that ships from the US coastline to 3 miles out to sea are property of the US. If the remains of the United States or any foreign government’s ships as in Warships are recovered then the law of Finds does not apply since it is generally accepted that governments never abandon the search and recovery efforts for their own vessels.



Sea Search Armada vs Colombia for the San Jose Treasure


Immediately after the news release that the Colombian government had found the San Jose off the coast in 2015. The Lawsuits started arriving for challenges over claims against Colombia’s ownership of the “Holy Grail” of Sunken Treasure.

In particular, the American-based company Sea Search Armanda provided coordinates of the Shipwreck to the Colombian government in 1983.

They had given the Colombian government a 50% claim before starting the project. When they found the treasure the President arrested them and expelled them from the area of the shipwreck by force and after gave them a new deal of 5% take it or leave it. The crew members soon left the country without anything and returned to the United States, promising that they would see Colombia in Federal court.

In 2007, they did, Colombia’s Supreme Court ruling was that the Sea Search Armada had the right to half of any treasure at the site. This is based on that the treasure wasn’t considered “national patrimony” The president disagreed and said the finding of the San Jose was not only important for Colombia’s National Culture but because of the Scientific, Cultural, and Historical importance of the entire world. The problem with all this is the origin of the treasure which was Peru might also have a claim to this.

At the time the San Jose was sunk, it was carrying 6 years’ worth of accumulated treasure that came from Latin America. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos dismissed the story of Sea Search Armada and said the Colombian government found the site themselves in 2015 with the help of a team of international researchers, U.K.-based Maritime Archeology Consultants, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Santos said that the investigations lead to the finding of the treasure around 80 miles off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia. Santos was hoping to sign the deal with contractors that will eventually raise the San Jose but his term is now coming to an end. The next President will possibly, depending on the outcome of the Court, receive that job. 

The President insisted that this find has nothing to do with money as much as a huge lift in terms of Cultural Heritage. The Archeology Consultants said they used the information that was available from the records of previous dives and past studies to come up with the right coordinates to find the wreck using Sonar ROVs after numerous attempts.


Why is the Ocean Different Colors


 Sea Search Armada


As of this date, the battle to raise the San Jose remains unresolved but not forever. The battle will continue in court until it is finally resolved.  Jack Harbeston, managing director of SSA has always maintained the Colombian government has lied continuously right from the beginning. There was no intention of any good faith agreement and they were even threatened with military force.

According to Harbeston, “the Colombian Supreme Court settled with Sea Search Armada.

In U.S. court papers, SSA claimed that it located the San Jose site on the continental shelf off the Colombia coast in 1981 and formally filed that location with Colombia in 1982.

But Colombia broke an 1984 agreement to give the U.S. salvagers 35% of the treasure and prevent the Americans from salvaging the shipwreck at the bottom of the sea, the U.S. firm contended. The Colombian Parliament passed a law giving the country all rights to the shipwreck treasure and only a 5% finders fee to SSA, an amount that would also be taxed at a rate of 45%, according to SSA’s lawsuit.”

Now that all the evidence is in it will be interesting to see how the Colombian Government will face the fire of an International Court with a worldwide audience. The truth will have to come out. I think the fact that the treasure location is 80 miles off the coast of Colombia which is considered International Waters might not help their case.

The fact the Archeologist used the same coordinates as the members of the Sea Search Armada and a ruling by the country’s own Supreme Court might not help either. Don’t forget Sovereign Immunity, Warships have that special identity.

Then there are the new laws that have been put into place since these American guys found the treasure way back in1982. It seems to me that they acted as Salvors which means they were working on behalf of the owners of the ship.

The owners of San Jose were from Spain. There could be an argument made that Spain and Peru jump in too. Why not? All they have to do is lawyer up and say that the ship or the contents legally belong to them.

No matter who plays the ” finder keepers loser weepers”  hand that might just be a losing one. I’m no Maritime Lawyer. Soon we will all find out what has been sitting at the bottom of the Caribbean sea for over 300 years. Cool!





JimGalloway Author/Editor





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