By Laila Kearney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - An underwater explorer who believes he has located the 500-year-old remains of Christopher Columbus' flagship, the Santa Maria, off the northern coast of Haiti said on Wednesday he hopes to begin excavation as early as next week.
Barry Clifford, a Massachusetts marine investigator who recently led a reconnaissance expedition to the site, said the start of any excavation depends on approval from the Haitian government.
Clifford also said he needs to locate a facility to potentially house any of the remains.
He and a team of marine explorers say evidence strongly suggests the artifacts from the shipwreck off Haiti belong to the Santa Maria, which Columbus used on his maiden voyage in 1492.
Some experts and Haitian officials have reacted cautiously to the possible discovery, saying it is far from confirmed.
"I think the evidence is overwhelming that the ship is most likely the Santa Maria," Clifford said.
Clifford, 68, said he has held talks with Haiti President Michel Martelly in order to get approval to start excavating. He urged Haitian officials to take steps to protect the artifacts, and said some items appeared to have been looted from the site.
The remains were discovered in about 10 to 15 feet of water near a reef, according to Clifford and his exploration team. The distance of the wreckage from a fort in Haiti matches a description Columbus detailed in his diary, he said.
Among the artifacts found was a 15th-century cannon.
The Santa Maria was one of three vessels that left Spain to look for a shorter route to Asia.
The ship sank on Christmas Day in 1492 and had to be abandoned. After the shipwreck, Columbus left behind 39 men and sailed back to Spain on the Nina. He returned a year later to find the fort destroyed and none of his crew alive.
Clifford's team first discovered the wreck off Haiti in 2003, but was unable to identify the ship.
Yet the discovery of Columbus' encampment on nearby Haiti and data from the explorer's diary prove the heavily decayed vessel on the sea floor was the Santa Maria, Clifford believes.
(Writing by Kevin Gray; Editing by Gunna Dickson and Andre Grenon)