Barry Clifford on Finding the Santa Maria—and Why The Story Isn't Over Yet

Courtesy of Barry Clifford
Courtesy of Barry Clifford / Courtesy of Barry Clifford

"I can't imagine what else it might be," Barry Clifford said earlier today at a press conference held at the New York headquarters of the Explorers Club. He was referring to the wreckage he discovered off the northern coast of Haiti that has been tentatively reported to be the remains of Christopher Columbus' flagship, the Santa Maria.

Clifford was all but adamant that this is the historic ship. "We're looking for a big pile of stones in a space the size of Yankee Stadium in clear water," he said of the search. "It's not nuclear physics." So why, then, had the ship gone undiscovered for over 500 years? Even Clifford didn't realize the wreck that he found and photographed in 2003 was the Santa Maria until recently.


All studies of Christopher Columbus rely on a detailed primary document: his diary. Like other explorers and archeologists, Clifford knew it would be the key to finding the Santa Maria: "[Columbus] wrote it knowing it would be scrutinized." And that instilled a very valuable sense of urgency.

At 11:00pm on Christmas Eve 1492, Columbus wrote that he went to sleep with the Santa Maria "standing" in the Bay of Campeche. An hour later, the ship ran ashore so quietly, according to Columbus, that no one on board even woke up.

Two things about the entry stood out: The first was Columbus' notion that the ship was standing still. "I knew after diving in this area that there’s no way you can stand still because of the current," Clifford said. The second thing that stood out was the relative silence of the crash, which would have been impossible had Columbus run aground on a coral reef. Clifford (and anyone else searching for the Santa Maria) knew they were looking for a sandy patch consistent with modern understandings of the currents around the coast.

And yet for years, excavators found nothing—because they were looking in the wrong place. Columbus wrote that the wreck was located one and a half leagues from La Navidad, the first European colony built in the "New World" in the days after the wreck using timber stripped from the ship. (Incidentally, La Navidad did not last long—when Columbus returned the following year, the fort was in ruins and the 39 men left behind had all been murdered by local tribes.) But one by one, targets (objects identified by magnetometer survey) at the correct distance from the assumed location were ruled out—until a proposition by the University of Florida's Dr. Kathy Deegan that put La Navidad two miles further west than originally thought.


That opened up a new range of possibilities, but Clifford still initially discounted the wreck that is now thought to be the Santa Maria when he first discovered it in 2003. He and his son photographed and surveyed everything at the site, but misidentified a long, tubular object.

"In 2012, I sat up in the middle of the night and realized, that's not a tube, that's a lombard," Clifford said, referring to a specific type of 15th century Spanish cannon known to have been aboard Columbus' ships. It was just the eighth of its kind found in the Americas and, after comparing photos from the wreck to research on lombards, represented the smoking gun in the mystery of the Santa Maria.


But the story is far from over. Clifford and his team returned to the site recently only to find many of the artifacts, including the telltale cannon, had been looted by what Clifford believes to have been opportunists from the Dominican Republic who got word of the valuable nature of the wreck. He calls this an "emergency situation"—especially since he was forced to leave the site unattended after contracting cholera.

Clifford expressed concern that Haiti is unprepared to take advantage of what could be a unique and valuable source of tourism and revenue. "It is a very important resource for Haiti and it has to be protected," he said. "But they need help."

Professor Charles Beeker of Indiana University will lead the excavation, but Clifford has hopes for an international effort to protect and preserve the wreck. He imagines that eventually a traveling exhibit can be brought to life showcasing the Santa Maria to the public, with proceeds benefiting Haiti.

SANTA MARIA PRESS VIDEO from Dov Freedman on Vimeo.

Password for the video: octoberfilms. All Photos Courtesy of Barry Clifford.