Santa Maria
Replicas of Christopher Columbus' ships, the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, sail past the Statue of Liberty 26 June 1992 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus' landing in the Americas Maria R. Bastone/AFP/Getty Images

A world-renowned explorer believes he has found Christopher Columbus's flagship, the Santa Maria, wrecked in a storm off the coast of Haiti more than 500 years ago.

The discovery is reported to be "the first-ever detailed marine archaeological evidence of Columbus' discovery of America".

The famous cargo ship foundered on Christmas day in 1492. Its wreckage had been located a decage ago by an expedition team led by Barry Clifford but at that time the vessel's identity was not confirmed.

But through further data analysis taken from dives to the site earlier this month and re-examination of those photographs taken in 2003, the findings have allowed Clifford to name the wreckage as Santa Maria.

He told the Independent: "All the geographical, underwater topography and archaeological evidence strongly suggests that this wreck is Columbus' famous flagship, the Santa Maria."

The location of the wreck remained unknown until archaeologists tracked down a fort, which Columbus and his crew built from the ship's timber. Clifford then used that data and information from Columbus's journals to pinpoint the wreckage.

The Santa Maria was the largest of Columbus' three ships used in his first voyage towards the Indies in 1492. The much smaller vessels Nina and Pinta managed to find their way back to the Old World. Their whereabouts remain unknown.

Clifford is now working with the Haitian authorities to preserve the evidence and artefacts of the ship that "changed the world", which is predicted to play a major role in developing Haiti's tourism industry.

"I am confident that a full excavation of the wreck will yield the first-ever detailed marine archaeological evidence of Columbus' discovery of America.

"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."

American TV network, the History channel, is funding the project and has secured exclusive rights to produce a major television programme on the subject.