Indiana University Bloomington

IU underwater science experts to investigate 'compelling' evidence of Santa Maria discovery

  • May 13, 2014

Editors: This news release has been translated into Haitian Creole and Spanish.


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Underwater science researchers from Indiana University Bloomington are investigating evidence that the wreck of the Santa Maria, the flagship of Christopher Columbus' initial voyage to the Americas in 1492, may have been discovered off the coast of Haiti.

Charles Beeker, director of the Office of Underwater Science and Academic Diving and associate clinical professor of kinesiology in the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington, said recent investigations look promising, based on scientific diving and visual inspection of the site and evaluation of remote sensing data and historic records.

"The evidence looks very compelling, and Indiana University will conduct a full investigation to determine whether this is the Santa Maria, hopefully as early as this summer," Beeker said. "We are very excited about the potential of this discovery and very pleased to help protect sites such as the Santa Maria for future generations as Living Museums in the Sea."

Underwater explorer Barry Clifford said this week that he had found what he believed to be the Santa Maria near Cap-Haïtien. The discovery includes a ballast pile near where Columbus reported his ship to have run aground early on Christmas morning in 1492. On an earlier exploration of the site, Clifford photographed what may have been a 15th-century wrought-iron lombard (cannon), which has since been looted.

Columbus' crew and the local Taíno Indians salvaged much of the ship and used the material to build a garrison, La Navidad, where the explorer left 39 of his crew before returning to Spain with his remaining ships, the Niña and the Pinta. The Santa Maria is the first historically documented European shipwreck in the Americas and is highly significant as part of the fleet that established permanent contact between the Old and New Worlds.

An investigation of the discovery would include a scientific diving expedition and underwater archaeological excavation to determine whether materials are present that are consistent or inconsistent with a late-15th-century sailing ship. In accordance with best practices for underwater archaeology, the next phase of the project will focus on recovery of diagnostic artifacts with minimal impact to the site. However, if research findings indicate that the shipwreck is likely the Santa Maria, a full excavation will be undertaken, under the auspices and full ownership of the Haitian government.

Geoffrey Conrad, professor emeritus of anthropology at IU Bloomington and a collaborator with Beeker on archaeological research in the Caribbean, said the location of Clifford's discovery matches the location where Columbus recorded in his logbook that the ship ran aground.

"It's in the right place," he said. "It's the best candidate yet for the Santa Maria."

Beeker, who is in the Dominican Republic directing ongoing research, has been conducting underwater archaeological and biological investigations in the region for over 20 years. A Marine Protected Areas specialist, Beeker was instrumental in establishing the USAID-sponsored Living Museums in the Sea National System of the Dominican Republic to preserve submerged cultural resources and the associated biodiversity through sustainable tourism.

Included within this system of protected areas is the 1699 Quedagh Merchant, proven by Beeker to be the last shipwreck of pirate Captain William Kidd and currently the focus of the National Geographic Treasures of the Earth Exhibit in the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Beeker intends to couple archaeological and historical investigation of the Santa Maria with establishment of a corresponding Living Museum in the Sea Special Protected Area in Haiti.

Indiana University underwater research also includes continued investigation of the possible site of Columbus' "Lost Fleet" in La Isabela Bay on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic. Several of Columbus' ships were lost in 1495 during the explorer's second trip to the Americas.

For more information, contact Tracy James, 812-855-0084 or, or Steve Hinnefeld, 812-856-3488 or, both of IU Communications; or Charles Rondot, 812-855-1354 or, of the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington.

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Underwater archaeologist Charles Beeker measures one of many ballast stones at the possible site of the Santa Maria shipwreck.

Underwater archaeologist Charles Beeker measures one of many ballast stones at the possible site of the Santa Maria shipwreck. | Photo by Indiana University

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Charles Beeker

Charles Beeker

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Tracy James

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