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KUSA – A Colorado man may have made one of the most historic underwater discoveries in more than 500 years since Christopher Columbus' famed Santa Maria ship ran aground in 1492.

Barry Clifford believes his dive team has discovered the remains of the vessel, sailed by Christopher Columbus in the 15th century on an exploratory mission to the Caribbean, but which eventually ran aground and wrecked off the coast of what is now Haiti.

Clifford graduated from Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, Colo., four decades ago. Since then, he has become a worldwide, famed undersea explorer.

"All the geographical, underwater topography and archaeological evidence strongly suggests that this wreck is Columbus' famous flagship, the Santa Maria," Clifford told The Independent, a British newspaper, about the team's discovery.

Western State University says Clifford has salvaged pirate ships off coasts from Cape Cod to Madagascar.

This week, NBC News reported photos surfacing from a dive site off the coast of Haiti, coupled with Clifford's first-hand accounts of the discovery area, are evidence the famed new-world-bound Santa Maria's remains have been discovered.

Previously, one of Clifford's most famous discoveries had been the Whydah, which he located in 1984 near Cape Cod. That wreckage became a National Geographic Society exhibit that traveled to Denver in 2010.

The Santa Maria ran aground on Christmas Day in 1492. Clifford told The Independent the location of the wreckage site, a settlement off the coast of Haiti called La Navidad, was consistent with what Columbus had recorded in his diary.

One week after the Santa Maria sank, Columbus sailed back to Spain with the equally-famous Nina and the Pinta.

One year later, he returned with 17 ships to La Navidad, but it had been destroyed by the island's native inhabitants.

Clifford says the next step is working with the Haitian government to try to excavate and study the remains.

According to The Independent, Clifford's teams had originally located wreckage in this location in 2003.

The remains were tentatively identified as those of the Santa Maria just this week, after new photographs were taken and reconnaissance dives were completed.

Clifford visits the Gunnison area often to see his children who both live in Crested Butte.

His son often accompanies Clifford on his dives.

His underwater explorations began in Massachusetts after graduation from Western; he started a construction business on Martha's Vineyard, and dove on weekends, looking for shipwrecks.

For more on Clifford's diving discoveries, visit http://www.western.edu/profile/alumnus/barry-clifford-undersea-explorer.

(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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