Fisherman who survived 13 months at sea prepares to head home

Jose Salvador Alvarenga, who incredibly survived adrift by eating turtles and his urine for over a year, will be repatriated to Mexico or El Salvador and reunite with family

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 February, 2014, 4:22pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 February, 2014, 7:23pm

Pacific castaway Jose Salvador Alvarenga was preparing on Wednesday for a faster and more comfortable journey home after 13 months adrift in a small fishing boat, as his mother called his rescue “a divine miracle”.

Officials in the Marshall Islands said Alvarenga would depart the tiny Pacific nation on Friday for Hawaii, before travelling on to El Salvador or Mexico.

“Most likely he will be repatriated back to El Salvador,” foreign affairs official Anjanette Kattil said.

We will make him a big meal, but we won’t feed him fish because he must be bored of eating that
Maria Julia, mother

“Initially we thought he was Mexican but even if he was not, the Marshall Islands would render assistance to anyone who washes up on our shores.”

Alvarenga was born in El Salvador but had lived for years in Mexico, where he says he set off on a fishing trip in late 2012 before becoming lost and drifting some 12,500 kilometres to the Marshalls in a small boat.

The 37-year-old said he survived by eating raw fish and birds as well as drinking turtle blood, urine and rainwater for 13 months, but a teenage companion named Xiguel starved to death during the ordeal.

His family, including a 14-year-old daughter named Fatima who has no recollection of the father who left for Mexico before she was born, said they were looking forward to welcoming him home.

“It is a divine miracle, a sign that God was compassionate with our son’s life,” his mother Maria Julia said from her home on El Salvador’s Pacific coast, tears of joy streaming down her face.

“I kept thinking that one day he would come back to us, that God wants him to return to our house.”

Alvarenga was released from hospital in the Marshalls capital Majuro late on Tuesday after a medical check-up found he was suffering severe dehydration and the effect of a poor diet but was otherwise healthy.

After shaving the bushy beard that grew during his months adrift, he was keeping a low profile in a local hotel on Wednesday, with two policemen guarding his room.

Alvarenga has become something of a celebrity in the Marshall Islands and Kattil said locals had taken him to their hearts.

“People have anonymously arrived at hospital to bring him food, clothes, toiletries and blankets,” she said.

Watch: Fisherman is all smiles after ordeal at sea

Remarkably healthy

The stockily built fisherman appeared remarkably healthy just days after being found wandering, disorientated and clad only in ragged underpants, on the coral atoll where his boat washed up.

There were some contradictions regarding dates in various media interviews he has given since being rescued, but authorities in Mexico confirmed they launched an air and sea search for him and a missing boy in November 2012.

I am all emotional because I am going to get to know him
Fatima Alvarenga, daughter

Fishermen in Mexico’s southern Chiapas state also said they remembered Alvarenga, who was known by the nickname “La Chanca” or “fatty”.

“We are surprised, but there is no doubt it’s him,” said fisherman William Uscanga after seeing a picture of the castaway.

El Salvador does not have diplomatic relations with the Marshall Islands but Mexico does, and a Mexican official was due in Majuro late Wednesday to co-ordinate Alvarenga’s repatriation.

In an interview from his hospital on Tuesday, Alvarenga said he had suicidal thoughts during his trip but was sustained by dreams of reuniting with his family and eating tortilla and chicken.

His mother was eager to oblige.

“We will make him a big meal, but we won’t feed him fish because he must be bored of eating that,” she said. “We will make him a big plate of meat, beans and cheese to help him recover.”

Scepticism remains

Some experts say it is theorically possible to survive such a trip under harsh elements, but others were sceptical about the man’s story.

His family, however, was just happy to see him again, including his 14-year-old daughter Fatima, who lives with his parents and had not seen him in years. They have yet to speak with him since his reappearance.

“I am all emotional because I am going to get to know him,” said Fatima, who had no memory of her father’s face until newspapers published pictures of the stocky and bearded man.

The girl’s mother left her with Alvarenga’s parents and moved to Guatemala.

Salvadoran authorities said they would give him a provisional passport to help him go home.

The family was mobbed by the media and curious neighbours eager to hear the incredible news.

His 65-year-old father, Ricardo, said Alvarenga left for Mexico 15 years ago to work for a fishing company. “He was restless when he was young and always liked fishing,” said Ricardo, a farmer who plants yucca (or cassava), bananas and corn.

Alvarenga would go to the beach with friends and return home with fish he had caught.