Robot Submarine Discovers 300-Year-Old Shipwreck with $17 Billion in Treasure

After two years of keeping the discovery hidden, a team of researchers confirmed their autonomous robot discovered a 300-year-old shipwreck off the Colombian coast.
Shelby Rogers

Over 300 years ago, a Spanish galleon disappeared at sea. A robot named REMUS is now responsible for discovering one of the most valuable finds in the last century.

REMUS 6000 used its autonomous diving and sensing capabilities to help researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute find roughly $17 billion in gold and other valuables that went down with the Spanish ship. The bronze cannons on the ship told researchers this wasn't just any find; it was the "holy grail of shipwrecks," and the dolphins engraved on the cannons indicated it belonged to the Spanish galleon San Jose.

Robot Submarine Discovers 300-Year-Old Shipwreck with $17 Billion in Treasure
Source: Mike Purcell, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

"I just sat there for about 10 minutes and smiled," said Jeff Kaeli, a research engineer with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in an interview.

Kaeli was by himself in his bunk on the search boat when he spotted the cannons on REMUS's imaging. 

"I'm not a marine archaeologist, but...I know what a cannon looks like," he said. "So in that moment, I guess I was the only person in the world who knew we'd found the shipwreck."

Kaeli alerted the rest of the team to what he'd seen from REMUS 6000's camera.

"The wreck was partially sediment-covered, but with the camera images from the lower altitude missions, we were able to see new details in the wreckage and the resolution was good enough to make out the decorative carving on the cannons," said WHOI engineer and expedition leader Mike Purcell.

"It was a pretty strong feeling of gratification to finally find it," said Munier, who was not at the site but learned in a phone call from Purcell. "It was a great moment."

WHOI won't say precisely where the wreckage is located, officials explained, but it's somewhere off the coast of Caragena, Colombia.

"We've been holding this under wraps out of respect for the Colombian government," said Rob Munier, WHOI's vice president for marine facilities and operations.

The REMUS 6000 found the ship roughly 2,000 feet below the surface and used its powerful long-range sonar scan to get an idea of the terrain. The robot then went back to the area and photographed anything that seemed out of place according to its readings. The cannons and debris covered in sediment were documented and sent back to the research team. 

Robot Submarine Discovers 300-Year-Old Shipwreck with $17 Billion in Treasure
Source: REMUS Image, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

What Happened to the San Jose

But how did such a massive ship sink and then go unnoticed for so long? Over 310 years ago, the Spanish galleon was armed with a mighty 62 bronze cannon rig -- all engraved with the ship's signature dolphins. The San Jose was well-armed because it served as a treasure ferrier from the New World back to Europe. It took out any pirate ship it met, but it fell to British ships during the War of Spanish Succession on June 8, 1708. 

Records explained that the British ship the Expedition put sizable holes in the already leaking San Jose. The San Jose crew had moved gunpowder toward the top of the ship when it ignited, according to records, and sank the ship and its 600 crew. 


Colombian president Juan Manual Santos said the vessel might not have exploded as records show, and hopes that further exploration could provide an alternative ending to the ship itself. Santos and the Colombian government are now embroiled in a battle for rights over the treasure -- a legal dispute involving an American salvage company with the government. 

WHOI said they're not involved in the dispute at all; they'd much rather explore the seas than hunt for treasure.

A Promising Future for Robotic Discoveries

Despite the treasure right disputes, the performance of the REMUS 6000 is treasure enough for the WHOI research team. Kaeli said REMUS 6000 allowed them to do more than they ever could've done previously with a human-only crew. 

"You can take bigger risks with your technology and go to places where it wouldn't be safe or feasible to put a human being," Kaeli said. 

The Remus system was also the robot responsible for finding the Air France Flight 447 when it crashed off the Brazilian coast almost a decade ago.


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