It is a story that almost defies belief: a man leaves Mexico in December 2012 for a day of shark fishing and ends up surviving several months on fish, birds and turtles before washing ashore on the remote Marshall Islands thousands of kilometres away.
But that is what a man identifying himself as 37-year-old Jose Salvador Alvarenga told the US ambassador in the Marshall Islands and the nation’s officials during a 30-minute meeting on Monday before he was taken to a local hospital for monitoring.
Alvarenga washed ashore on the tiny atoll of Ebon in the Pacific Ocean last week before being taken to the capital, Majuro, on Monday.
Alvarenga says he thought about suicide but was sustained by dreams of eating his favourite food – tortillas – and reuniting with his family.
“I didn’t want to die of starvation,” he told AFP through a Spanish interpreter at Majuro Hospital, where he is recuperating after being found disoriented last Thursday at a remote coral atoll.
“There were times I would think about killing myself. But I was scared to do it,” he added, raising his arm, pointing to heaven and declaring: “God! Faith!”
Alvarenga said he would dream of eating all his favourite foods. “But then I woke up and all I see is the sun, sky and the sea,” he said. ”My dream for over a year is to eat a tortilla, chicken and so many other types of food.
“I would imagine and dream a lot about my family, my mother and my father,” he said. Alvarenga said he was not married but has a daughter named Fatima who he was anxious to see again.
His parents feared he had been killed. "Thank God he is alive. We are overjoyed... I just want him here with us,” his mother Maria Julia Alvarenga told CNN in his homeland El Salvador, whose government says it is working with Mexico to bring him home.
“The hardest thing I had to do to survive was to drink my own urine,” he said. This was during a period when “for three months it didn’t rain”. When it did, he used the hull of his boat to store water.
Alvarenga described his joy at finally making landfall at Ebon Atoll after so long at sea, saying he spotted a house and crawled up the beach towards it.
“I went towards it and began yelling for help,” he said. Two Marshallese came out and helped the stranger, who was clad only in a ragged pair of underpants, by giving him coconut juice.
The stockily built Alvarenga looked in remarkably good physical shape when he arrived in the Marshalls capital Majuro five days later aboard a police patrol boat. Sporting a bushy beard and with his hair bleached a ginger colour by the sun, he was helped down the gangplank by a male nurse but he did not appear to have chapped lips, blistered skin or other signs of severe exposure.
“It’s hard for me to imagine someone surviving 13 months at sea,” said Ambassador Tom Armbruster in Majuro. “But it’s also hard to imagine how someone might arrive on Ebon out of the blue. Certainly this guy has had an ordeal, and has been at sea for some time.”
Other officials were reacting cautiously to the Spanish-speaking man’s story while they try to piece together more information.
Pushed body overboard
If true, the man’s ordeal would rank among the greatest tales ever of survival at sea.
Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department says the man told Mexico’s ambassador to the Philippines, Julio Camarena, that he set out from an area near the coastal town of Tonala in southern Chiapas state, which would mean his journey covered a distance of more than 10,460 kilometres, if he drifted in a straight line.
Armbruster said the soft-spoken man complained of joint pain on Monday and had a limp but was able to walk. He had long hair and a beard, the ambassador said, and rather than appearing emaciated he looked puffy in places, including around his ankles.
Otherwise, he added, Alvarenga seemed in reasonable health.
Armbruster, who speaks Spanish, said the survivor told the following story:
He’s a native of El Salvador but had lived in Mexico for 15 years and fishes for a man he knows as Willie, catching sharks for 25 pesos (HK$14) per pound.
On December 21, 2012, Alvarenga left Mexico in his seven-metre fibreglass boat for a day’s fishing, accompanied by a teen he knew only as Ezekiel, or Xiguel, who was between 15 and 18.
A storm blew the fishermen off course, and soon they were lost and adrift.
“He talked about scooping up little fish that swam alongside the boat and eating them raw,” Armbruster said. “He also said he ate birds, and drank birds’ blood.”
After about a month, Xiguel died, the survivor told officials. Alvarenga described being forced to dump the body of his teenage companion overboard when he starved to death.
The 37-year-old’s mood darkened as he described how the boy died four months into their voyage, unable to survive on a diet of raw bird flesh, turtle blood and his own urine.
“He couldn’t keep the raw food down and he kept vomiting,” Alvarenga said. ”I tried to get him to hold his nose and eat but he kept vomiting.”
Alvarenga said he tried to keep track of time as the sun moved across the sky but weeks and months eventually blurred. Every so often he would hear something bump the side of the boat. Invariably it was a sea turtle.
“I was able to reach over the side of the boat and grab them,” he said. “I caught many turtles over the course of my drift,” he said.
Once near Ebon, he swam ashore.
“He thanked God, initially, that he had survived,” the ambassador said. “He’s very anxious to get back in touch with his employer, and also with the family of [Xiguel]. That’s his driving motivation at the moment.”
In Costa Azul, a fishing hamlet near Tonala, fishing boat owner Villermino Rodriguez Solis, who assumes his son is the “Willie” that Alvarenga referred to, said Alvarenga and a companion had gone missing on November 18, 2012, which would imply the sea odyssey lasted 14 and a half months.
“Here, his colleagues went out in boats to look for them. They spent four days looking for them,” said Villermino, who expressed surprise that Alvarenga had been found alive in the Marshall Islands.
Residents of Costa Azul said they did not know Alvarenga’s real name. He had shown up looking for work years before, but worked from fishing camps along the coast. They knew him only by a nickname, “La Chancha”, used to describe heavyset people. It was clear he was an experienced fisherman, they said.
Armbruster said the man said he had no family in Mexico but he does have three brothers who live in the United States, although he could not immediately provide officials with contact details. The Mexican government also quoted the man as saying he had no family in Mexico.
Gee Bing, the acting secretary of foreign affairs for the Marshall Islands, said he was somewhat sceptical of Alvarenga’s account after meeting with him on Monday.
“It does sound like an incredible story, and I’m not sure if I believe his story,” Bing said. “When we saw him, he was not really thin compared to other survivors in the past. I may have some doubts. Once we start communicating with where he’s from, we’ll be able to find out more information.”
Bing said the man had no identification with him, and other details of his story remained sketchy. Camarena said Alvarenga gave his hometown as Garita Palmera, in El Salvador’s Ahuachapan province. Mexico said it was co-ordinating with the Salvadoran government to provide assistance to the man.
The survivor’s vital signs appeared good except that his blood pressure was a bit low, Bing said. After doctors give him the all-clear, Bing said, officials hope to repatriate him to Mexico or whatever country is appropriate.
Erik van Sebille, a Sydney-based oceanographer at the University of New South Wales, said there was a good chance a boat drifting off Mexico’s west coast would eventually be carried by currents to the Marshall Islands. He said such a journey would typically take 18 months to two years depending on the winds and currents, although 13 months was possible.
“The way that the currents in the Pacific work is that there is a very strong westerly current just north of the equator and that basically drives you directly from Mexico all the way toward Indonesia and in the path, you go right over the Marshall Islands,” he said.
There have been other cases of people surviving for months adrift in the Pacific. In a case with similarities, three Mexican shark fishermen in 2006 said they were lost at sea for nine months before being rescued near the Marshall Islands.
In 1989, four men survived nearly four months in the Pacific Ocean near New Zealand after their multi-hulled boat capsized.