Background to the

Discovery; Researching the San José

The San José project was based on an exhaustive historical investigation initiated by MAC’s leading researcher Roger Dooley. He spent more than 33 years combing through several cultural and academic archival centres, studying the construction, the voyage and the sinking of the San José. Later he sought to find the location of the shipwreck

The Galleon San José was designed by Antonio de Gaztañeta and built in the shipyards of Mapil in 1697. by master builders, the Echeveste brothers, of whom Miguel was responsible for the layout of its careening.The rigging was made in Pasajes with masts imported from Holland, and delivered to Gaztañeta ready to sail to Cadiz in 1699. In its original layout, the San José was armed with 44 iron cannons. Her gauging, which was completed on the 18th of May 1698, confirms that she was a two decker galleon, of 1,066 and 6/8ths tons. 41.40m of length; 34.58 m of keel; 12.55 m of beam and a depth-hold of 5.75m.

In Cádiz, in view of its quality, Francisco Garrote proposed she should be mounted with 62 cannons instead of the original 44, making changes on the quarterdeck "moving it" to the mainmast, lowering the height of the stern, removing corridors and modifying its decor. These works were carried out and the ship was ready for commissioning in 1700.

Amongst others Roger studied documents in the General Archive of the Indies (Seville), the Archivo General de Simancas (Valladolid), the Royal Academy of History (Madrid), the National Historical Archive (Madrid), the National Library of Spain), and the Naval Museum of Madrid. It was in the Archivo General de Indias - the largest historic document collection for the history of the Spanish American empire where he discovered the most important pieces of information used to support the historical basis for MAC’s search.

Roger studied thousands of handwritten manuscripts containing numerous references and testimonials about the San José, and it’s sinking during the battle in 1708. Added to this archival research came the discovery of an unknown map from 1729, and a hitherto unpublished “derrotero” a “rutter” dated 1689, which were located in manuscript collections of the British Library in London. Armed with this information, Roger was able to make a cartographic reconstruction of the final voyage of the ill-fated galleon. Roger interpreted and extrapolated all of this data onto current navigation charts and the search area was defined. Based upon Roger’s research, MAC requested and received a permit from the Ministry of Culture to search that specific area.




Amid the War of Spanish Succession between the Bourbons and the Habsburgs, with the French and the Spanish fighting against the English, the Dutch and the Austrians, a fleet commanded by Don José Fernández de Santillán, First Count of Casa Alegre, left Spain on March 10, 1706, bound for the Caribbean. Led by the capitana (flagship) San José, the fleet (Armada) arrived at Cartagena de Indias on April 27, 1706. The fleet carried goods for trade fairs in Cartagena and Portobello to generate income for King Philip V and Spanish merchants. Peruvian taxes and treasure were brought to the fleet over the isthmus of Panama to Portobello. The voyage plan would see the ships return to Cartagena de Indias, and then to Havana in Spanish Cuba, before crossing the Atlantic and returning laden with the wealth of the Americas to Cádiz.

The English navy was well aware of the trade patterns, and of the importance of the American trade to their enemy Philip V. The English planned to ambush the fleet, and seize the revenues of Peru and the profits of the trade fairs. The threat of capture of the ships by the English and the disruption of mercantile trade in the region delayed the Armada’s departure, and it remained in Cartagena harbour between 1706 and 1708.
When the convoy of ships eventually sailed in 1708 the galleon San José, her sister galleon Almiranta (vice-flagship) San Joaquín, and the galleon Santa Cruz, were the main vessels in the fleet.

San José was armed with 62 bronze cannons and approximately 600 men, among them Captain General Conde de Casa Alegre. The galleon San Joaquín was commanded by the Almirante Don Miguel Agustín de Villanueva and also had 62 guns and approximately 500 men on board. Meanwhile, Don Nicolas de la Rosa (Conde de Vega Florida) commanded the smaller Santa Cruz, which carried about 300 men and 44 guns during the battle, in addition to 11 more guns stored in the hold.

Two more armed Spanish ships are reported, and twelve additional merchant vessels complemented the convoy, so that the total Armada consisted of 17 vessels. At the end of the trade fair in Portobello the Armada sailed back towards Cartagena on May 28, 1708. On June 8 while sailing within sight of Rosario Island but still approximately 30 miles distant from the port entrance of Cartagena harbour, the English struck. The English naval squadron led by Commodore Charles Wager attacked the Spanish ships.
A bloody and confused battle followed, fought from the evening of June 8 to the early hours of the next morning. At sunset the San José entered battle against Wager's flagship, exchanging cannon shots for about an hour and a half. Suddenly, a fire broke out on the galleon, and almost immediately afterwards it sank.

The accounts of the sinking from each side are conflicting as to what happened onboard San José that night. The English claimed it was an intense explosion, however, the official Spanish version dismisses the idea of an explosion, instead citing previous damage to the structure from grounding and the vibration of the broadside cannon fire during the battle opened her hull to the sea. These conflicting accounts occur possibly because the sinking occurred at night and San José was far from the other vessels. Therefore no one really saw what happened. However, all the versions agree that the sinking happened so quickly that there was no time to save anything from the ship, or to save most of the people aboard her. Only a handful survived

San José sank with everything on board, giving the English the opportunity to capture the Santa Cruz. That ship surrendered at around the 02:00 hours on 9th June. Others were scattered and one was burnt to prevent capture by the English. Nevertheless, twelve of the remaining ships of the squadron arrived safely to Cartagena



JUNE 2015

The search for the San José started in June of 2015.

The search methodology consisted of obtaining graphic data of the seabed in previously defined areas, tracing long overlapping search swaths, using a process of linear and orderly search lines, known in the search business as "mowing the lawn" at different frequencies with a side scan sonar incorporated into the AUV (Autonomous Underwater Vehicle) the “Remus 6000” owned and supplied by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

If any anomalies, objects of high probability or complex geological areas were detected then another mission was sent, to obtaining photographic data to identify the anomaly/object detected. In order to ensure a successful search, we retained the services of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in the USA.

WHOI has an extensive and recognized expertise in deep water exploration and holds the required equipment – in this case an AUV-and technician to conduct such an operation. All Search and Survey operations were conducted with the supervision of both ICAHN and DIMAR.

We also leased, through the Dirección General Marítima de Colombia (DIMAR), the use of the oceanographic vessel ARC Malpelo

The search area was broken into a series of search blocks, time was limited and the whole area could not be surveyed during the initial search phase, No trace of the wreck was discovered in this initial survey of the selected sub areas. The rest of the search area had to wait on equipment availability, until later in the year.




In November 2015, the MAC survey team and Woods Hole researchers and equipment returned to Colombian waters to continue and finish the search and survey of the original search box plan, again leasing the Colombian Navy vessel “ARC Malpelo”. As well as the AUV, this time there was a Sub Bottom Profiler added to analyse features below the seabed. A multibeam sonar was also installed on the AUV for use once we identified any targets on the seabed. The multi-beam sonar can obtain a very detailed map of the 3D background of an underwater archaeological site and its surroundings.

On November 23, 2015 the search began again. After a few days of survey, an anomaly was discovered more than 600 meters below the surface. When the scientists analyzed the information collected from the AUV the next day, they observed several of these anomalies, unnatural, most likely anthropogenic in origin variations in the shape of the seabed that by their grouping and form, as well as by the size of the largest of them (28.7m x 14m), left no doubt that there was a shipwreck there.

The AUV returned to the location a few days later and conducted higher resolution sonar scans. On the 27th November, in the evening, the team received the processed data from the High Frequency scanners and the first photographic images of the archaeological site from the AUV.

To their surprise and delight, they could see numerous archaeological artefacts, including 22 bronze guns of the style of the later seventeenth century, sitting on the seabed in plain sight. Taken together, with the outline of the hull, which matched the dimensions of the San José, the ceramics and other artefacts, left no doubt the galleon San Jose had been found.

From November 29 to December 3, numerous additional missions were made by the AUV to the archaeological site, with the aim of obtaining a greater number of images of San José at different altitudes to complete the full identification of the site and prepare a photomosaic.

The President of Colombia was able to make public, these first images of the discovery to the nation in early December, creating a firestorm of media interest and public excitement. After three centuries one Colombia’s important pieces of submerged cultural heritage had been found.



MAY 2016

Continuing under the agreement with the Colombian Ministry of Culture, MAC this time using the vessel “Seabed Prince” returned to Cartagena in May 2016 to conduct a non-disturbance survey to further study the site characterization and detailed nature of the archaeological site and to establish methodologies and recovery plans that would take into account the complexity of the San José Site. As during the initial search, this survey was also supervised by ICAHN and DIMAR.

“Seabed Prince” was equipped with two Schilling heavy duty Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs). These ROVs are underwater robots fitted with lights, cameras and research tools, connected with an umbilical to the mothership. They offer the ability to perform more detailed work than the AUV. The Schilling ROVs weigh 3.7 tons and are 2.5m in length and 1.7m in length, about the size of a family car. They can operate in water up to 3,000m deep, carrying 200kg of payload. They can manoeuvre under their own propulsion at a speed of 3 knots using a hydraulic power generator with six large propellers.

One of the ROVs was equipped with a sensor facilitating depth, altitude and speed measurements. The front of the ROV was equipped with a color camcorder, a low-brightness camcorder, a high-definition camcorder and two additional camcorders for photogrammetry and photometric tasks.

The second ROV was equipped with two manipulators, one light and more agile on the starboard side and a simpler but more powerful one on the port side. A tool rack under the ROV contained a drawer for tools and equipment, and could be opened and closed under water. This drawer was used to hold a scale bar of 1m that the ROV could deposit on the sea floor to measure the surface objects, and two boxes with automatic closing covers for the collection of biological samples.

The ROVs were deployed under a cable control system from the back deck of the survey vessel. At the end of a dive, the ROV sailed back to engage then was hoisted back aboard the ship, and the data and samples were recovered. In this phase, MAC was studying the wreck and no items were removed (non intrusive). Biological and environmental samples of water, sediment and mud were recovered for analysis.

MAC delivered a pre-excavation survey and study to ICANH and the Ministry of Culture in early 2017. MAC then applied for the permit for the next phase of the project which includes intervention, and recovery, conservation and curation of this important archaeological site.