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    This Woods Hole robot submarine found a 300-year-old Spanish galleon that may contain billions in treasure

    23ship -- Ceramics and artifacts found on the site of the shipwreck. (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
    Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
    The REMUS 6000, a Woods Hole underwater vehicle, played a large part in uncovering the location of the 300-year-old San José.

    The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has revealed that one of its robot submarines played a key role in the discovery of a sunken Spanish galleon that might contain billions of dollars’ worth of treasure.

    The autonomous underwater vehicle, called the REMUS 6000, found the wreck of the San José on Nov. 27, 2015, Woods Hole expedition leader Mike Purcell said. Because of a legal battle between the Colombian government and an American salvage company over the treasure, the institution was not authorized to reveal its involvement in the discovery until Monday.

    The institution released pictures taken by REMUS, including one of jumbled cannons and another of scores of teacups scattered on the ocean floor.

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    The “holy grail of shipwrecks” was found off the coast of Cartagena. The ship sank during a battle with British ships in the 1708 War of Spanish Succession, Purcell said.

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    Nothing has been recovered yet, but it’s probably filled with gold, silver, and emeralds, according to a statement from the institution.

    REMUS, a 13-foot-long and 26-inch-wide torpedo-like vehicle, was able to snap photos of a few distinguishing features of the ship, including its unique bronze cannons and dolphin engravings, the statement said.

    REMUS “can go 6,000 meters under the ocean and explore and search the seafloor,” Purcell said. “It primarily uses sonar to locate things underwater and it also has cameras, so . . . we do a wide-area search with sonar and identify the sites we want to look at again.”

    When REMUS stumbled upon the San José, it sent out sonar signals alerting the researchers that there was a huge ship under the waves.

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    “We swam the vehicle much closer to the seafloor, so it could get more detailed pictures. . . . The wreck is sort of settled on top of itself, so you can see just a little bit of the wood hull,” Purcell said. “And from the pictures, the experts were able to identify it as the San José.”

    The Colombian government is in the process of building a museum and conservation laboratory to display the wreck’s contents, Purcell said.

    Mike Purcell/WHOI
    The REMUS 6000 was deployed off a Colombian Navy ship.

    “The San José discovery carries considerable cultural and historical significance for the Colombian government and people because of the ship’s treasure of cultural and historical artifacts and the clues they may provide about Europe’s economic, social, and political climate in the early 18th century,” the institution said.

    The treasure has been the subject of legal battles between several nations as well as private companies. Several weeks ago, UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, called on Colombia not to commercially exploit the wreck.

    In the past, REMUS has also mapped areas around the Titanic, gone on explorations to search for Amelia Earhart’s plane, and been used in expeditions with the US Navy, Purcell said.

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    “We are pleased to have played a part in settling one of the great shipwreck mysteries for the benefit of the Colombian people and maritime history buffs worldwide,” Rob Munier, Woods Hole’s vice president for marine facilities and operations, said in the statement.

    Teacups at the site.
    WHOI
    Teacups at the site.
    Amphorae at the site.
    WHOI
    Amphorae at the site.

    Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Elise Takahama can be reached at elise.takahama@globe.com.