Could this shipwreck be Christopher Columbus' Santa Maria?

A wreck off the coast of Haiti has been tentatively identified by underwater explorer Barry Clifford as the remains of one of Columbus' long-lost vessels.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read

Santa Maria replica
This image of a Santa Maria replica was taken around 1904. Detroit Publishing Co./Library of Congress

It's a mystery over 500 years in the making. We've all heard the poetic phrase, "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." He traveled with three ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. The third may have finally been found on the ocean floor off the coast of Haiti. If the discovery is confirmed, it could be a major archeological event.

Barry Clifford is an ocean explorer especially known for his discovery of the pirate shipwreck Wydah. He has been on the hunt for the Santa Maria for years. The shipwreck he believes to be that long-lost vessel was actually first found and photographed back in 2003. A fresh look at the photos and the site led Clifford to the new conclusion.

Clifford has quite a few reasons to believe he's found the right ship. Columbus left details in his diary about the location of the sinking, which happened near Haiti on Christmas Day in 1492. That description matches the shipwreck's whereabouts. The size of the shipwreck is also consistent with the dimensions of the Santa Maria. A cannon discovered with the wreck in 2003 was recently reevaluated and identified as matching one that would have been on board. Unfortunately, that cannon was plundered from the site in the intervening years. The photographic evidence is all that remains.

One reason why the ship was not identified as possibly being the Santa Maria back in 2003 has to do with the cannon. Clifford told CNN the weapon was originally "misdiagnosed" by archeologists at the time. Further research led him to an epiphany that the cannon could indeed be correct for the Santa Maria.

"I am confident that a full excavation of the wreck will yield the first ever detailed marine archaeological evidence of Columbus' discovery of America," Clifford told The Independent. He hopes the wreck will be at least partially recoverable so it could go on exhibit in Haiti.

Clifford's explorations have been aided by technology. Besides underwater photography, his team uses sonar equipment and marine magnetometers to scour the ocean bottom in search of historically important shipwrecks. The magnetometer is a device that measures changes in the magnetic field along the seabed. It can help detect submerged materials, like iron used in ships and cannons.

The rest of Columbus' famous trio of ships also met mysterious fates. The Pinta and Niña both made it back to Spain after Columbus' original transatlantic voyage, but what became of the Pinta after that is not known. The Niña was last noted to have been traveling along the Pearl Coast near Venezuela in 1501 on a trading voyage.

Whatever your thoughts on Columbus and his mixed legacy, the discovery of one of his ships would be a huge historical find that could shed more light on a fascinating era of exploration.