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Exploring the Submerged Heritage of Seaflower Biosphere Reserve in Colombia


San Andres
The Seaflower Biosphere Reserveis covers the entire Archipelago Department of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina in Colombia. Crtedit: UN Tourism/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Beneath the azure depths of the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve in the archipelago of San Andres and Providencia lies a treasure trove of ancient artifacts and shipwrecks that experts consider invaluable. This submerged heritage, nestled in the Seaflower’s marine environment, unveils a silent narrative of events from the past, waiting to be shared with humanity.

The Seaflower Biosphere Reserve, located in the western Caribbean in Colombia, has not only captivated marine enthusiasts with its vibrant ecosystems and colorful species but has also revealed remnants of ancient vessels, including structures, shipwrecks, cannons, and anchors. These relics, wholly or partially submerged for a century or more, are regarded as Submerged Cultural Heritage.

Captain Maritza Moreno, associated with the Directorate of Maritime and Port Affairs (DIMAR), emphasizes the importance of documenting these pieces: “It is crucial to have an inventory of these artifacts, firstly to understand our history, and secondly, to protect it.”

Since 2019, a project has been underway to explore the Submerged Cultural Heritage of the entire Colombian Caribbean. In September 2022, the Seaflower Expedition arrived at Cayo Bolivar, a site of vital importance for artisanal fishing located in the southern zone of the biosphere reserve in San Andres.

Seaflower Biosphere Reserve Colombia
The Seaflower Marine Protected Area (AMP) was the first created of this type and the largest in Colombia. Credit: INVEMAR_BEM/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Captain Maritza Moreno, reflecting on the discoveries made during the expedition, stated, “It was a marvelous experience because we didn’t have much information initially. However, it brought us immense joy to witness these findings. There’s a story being told, and we will be able to share it with humanity.”

The complex process of discovery

Uncovering these submerged treasures is no simple task. Anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians first delve into oral sources, maps, and historical literature to identify potential locations, which are later verified at sea.

Using an echosounder—a device that maps the underwater terrain through soundwaves reflecting on a screen—the team verifies potential sites. Subsequently, divers visually confirm findings through underwater exploration, capturing audiovisual or photographic records.

Jesus Alberto Aldana, an archaeologist and Submerged Cultural Heritage specialist involved in the expedition, highlights the collaborative effort: “What enhances this joy is when the fishermen, boatmen, and captains of the accompanying vessels are even more astonished by these discoveries because it was through them that we found them.”

Preserving history for future generations

While the recent discoveries at Cayo Bolivar are yet to be declared Submerged Cultural Heritage, pending further analysis, the expedition’s five days of exploration sparked a desire among participants to learn more and share their newfound knowledge with friends, family, and fellow workers.

Seaflower Biosphere Reserve, designated by UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere program in 2000, covers the entire Archipelago Department of San Andres, Providencia, and Santa Catalina. With an area of 180,000 km2, it encompasses various islands, cays, and marine environments. The reserve’s protection has played a crucial role in preserving key species and strategic ecosystems.

Seaflower Biosphere Reserve Colombia
Hawksbill Turtle is considered endangered and is found in the area. credit: Diego Delso/CC BY-SA 4.0

The Seaflower Biosphere Reserve serves as a prime example of conservation efforts in the Caribbean, showcasing extensive coral reefs, seagrass beds, mangroves, beaches, open sea, and tropical dry forests. Recognized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a potential World Heritage site, the reserve contributes significantly to marine biodiversity, being home to over 2,300 marine species.

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