(CBS) - An underwater explorer says he may have found the wreckage of Christopher Columbus' famous flagship, the Santa Maria, which was wrecked in a storm nearly 500 years ago. The shipwreck was found in relatively shallow waters off the north coast of Haiti.
In 1492, three ships made the voyage over to the New World -- the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria -- with the largest ship, the Santa Maria, floundering and sinking to the bottom of the Caribbean.
Underwater archaeological explorer Barry Clifford told The Independent that the evidence strongly suggested that the wreck he and his team found in the Caribbean was indeed Columbus' flagship.
Clifford said that when he first spotted and photographed the site in 2003, he saw what appeared to be a 15th century cannon and ballast stones that looked like they came from Spain or Portugal. However, following a more recent dive last week, he said the cannon was no longer there. The cannon and other artifacts may have been stolen by looters over the last decade.
Clifford's discovery was made possible by the work of other archaeologists, which suggested the probable location of Columbus' fort. Clifford then used the explorer's diary to try to determine where the location of the shipwreck could be, according to the British newspaper. Over the last several years, Clifford and his team investigated over 400 possible locations, narrowing down a tiny area where the shipwreck, which could be the Santa Maria, was found.
"We've informed the Haitian government of our discovery - and we are looking forward to working with them and other Haitian colleagues to ensure that the site is fully protected and preserved. It will be a wonderful opportunity to work with the Haitian authorities to preserve the evidence and artifacts of the ship that changed the world," Clifford told The Independent.
However, there are reasons to be skeptical that this is indeed the Santa Maria, said Kevin Crisman, director of the Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation at Texas A&M University.
Crisman told the Associated Press that many Spanish ships sunk off Haiti and the neighboring Dominican Republic during that era. The Santa Maria sank slowly in 1492 and the crew had time to remove valuable items, such as a cannon, that might have helped confirm the identity of the wreckage centuries later.
"If whoever finds the Santa Maria can confirm that it's the Santa Maria, that's kind of like the Holy Grail," Crisman said. "It would be very exciting but I remain skeptical because people make claims all the time."
Clifford said that if the shipwreck was indeed confirmed to be Columbus' Santa Maria, it should remain in Haiti.
"Ideally, if excavations go well and depending on the state of preservation of any buried timber, it may ultimately be possible to lift any surviving remains of the vessel, fully conserve them and then put them on permanent public exhibition in a museum in Haiti," he said, adding that "the wreck has the potential to play a major role in helping to further develop Haiti's tourism industry in the future."
Clifford became famous in 1984 for discovering the first and only intact pirate shipwreck, the Whydah, off the coast of Cape Cod. Found artifacts included sixty cannons, over ten thousand coins and 400 pieces of Akan gold jewelry.