Five of the great unsolved shipwreck mysteries

Underwater explorer Barry Clifford, who found the first verified wreck of a pirate ship – the Whydah Gally – in 1985, says remains found off the north coast of Haiti fit contemporary accounts of the wreck of the Santa Maria.

The vessel led the Italian explorer’s 1492 expedition to the new world and its name is regularly recited along with the Niña and Pinta by schoolchildren across the world.

Modern scholarship tends to strip Columbus of the distinction of being the first European to set foot in north America – many historians now give that honour to the Vikings led by Leif Ericsson who landed in Newfoundland about 500 years earlier.

But Columbus’s voyage, financed by Spain, ushered in an age of European colonisation of the Americas.

The Santa Maria drifted on to a reef off Haiti on Christmas Day 1492. One legend states that the crew were so drunk after celebrating Christmas that only a cabin boy was left awake to steer the ship.

Columbus left some crew members to found a small settlement on the Haitian coast, using timbers from the wreckage to build a fort.

Clifford’s team says the site of wreck fits contemporary accounts of the disaster, including Columbus’s diary, as well as other archaeological finds suggesting the location of the fort.

The explorer told the Independent: “All the geographical, underwater topography and archaeological evidence strongly suggests that this wreck is Columbus’s famous flagship, the Santa Maria.”

Mr Clifford, who says he would want the ship to stay in Haiti on public dislay, aims to carry out a detailed excavation of the site with the support of the government of Haiti in order to put the provenance of the wreck beyond doubt.

If the ship proves to be the Santa Maria, it will be one of the most important finds in the history of underwater archaeology.

But other famous wrecks remain undiscovered and continue to haunt the dreams of explorers and treasure hunters.

1. The Merchant Royal

While the waters around the British Isles are fertile ground for wreck divers, there is little chance of coming across chests of doubloons on the seabed, according to expert Richard Larn of Shipwrecks UK.

There is a ship with a fabulous treasure on board known to lie in English territory. RICHARD LARN

He told Channel 4 News: “You won’t find any Spanish galleons around these waters because it’s the wrong part of the world.

“But there is a ship with a fabulous treasure on board known to lie in English territory: the Merchant Royal. As far as we know, it hasn’t been found.”

The Merchant Royal was lost off Land’s End in 1641 carrying gold, silver and bullion worth hundreds of millions in today’s prices.

The English merchant ship was rumoured to be the wreck found by the US company Odyssey Marine Exploration in 2007 and known only by the codename Black Swan.

But after lengthy legal wranglings, Odyssey was ordered to hand over coins recovered from the wreck to Spain, suggesting that the ship was really a Spanish frigate.

The case became notorious when it popped up in leaked US diplomatic cables released by the WikiLeaks website.

Still, as far as we know, the Merchant Royal – nicknamed “the El Dorado of the seas” – is yet to be discovered.