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Diver plans search for Columbus ship

The remains of Christopher Columbus' flagship, the Santa Maria, are likely to amount to little more than a pile of rubble at the bottom of the ocean. George Cox knows that, but he believes he can find and recover the wreckage before the 500th anniversary of Columbus' landing in the New World _ with a little help.

Cox, 39, is an Orlando bail bondsman, salvage ship operator and experienced diver. He was bitten by the history bug while working on Mel Fisher's salvage crew recovering treasure from the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha off the Florida Keys.

"To me it would be like finding .

.

. King Tut's tomb," said Cox. "It would be the greatest archaeological find of this century."

Archaeologists agree it would be a significant deed. But locating what little may remain of the wreckage is a difficult task, they say, and proving that it is the famous ship could be even harder.

Cox has salvage ships, a permit from the Haitian government and a strong desire to carry out the project. He has been writing to corporations, charitable foundations, politicians and others, seeking support to the tune of $1.2-million.

If he can't get help, he may scale down his plans and do it, anyway, Cox says.

The Santa Maria was the flagship from Columbus' first trip. The vessel was grounded on a reef on Christmas Eve 1492, about two months after reaching the New World. Most scholars believe the ship was off the north coast of Haiti.

Pieces were brought ashore to use in building a fort for La Navidad, the first recorded European settlement in the Americas.

"It's not like she is a shipwreck that was lost," said Roger Smith, an underwater archaeologist for the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research in Tallahassee. "She was salvaged by the Spanish and the local people," who were Taino Indians.

What may remain is an anchor, remnants of metal fasteners for the wooden hull, ballast and trinkets, the experts say. Cox agrees.

"It's not like a 40-foot schooner sitting there with a skeleton sitting at the wheel," he said Tuesday.

But he thinks the search is worthwhile, and he thinks he can pinpoint the wreck with the help of high-tech tools.

Some agree with him.

The Santa Maria "definitely could be found if you designed the (search) properly and went after it with the right equipment," said Carl Clausen, formerly the underwater archaeologist for the state of Florida.

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