The most extraordinary tale of survival ever known?

A fisherman washed up on an island in the Pacific claims to have spent 259 days adrift. It is a record for survival on the waves that has experts all at sea, says Samuel Muston

It all began in December 2012, when José Salvador Alvarenga, an El Salvadorian fisherman, boarded his 22ft fibreglass fishing boat in the village of Costa Azul on the coast of the Mexican state of Chiapas. Along with another fisherman, a teenager identified only as Ezekiel, he set off to catch sharks to sell at the market. But things started to go wrong almost immediately.

The boat's motor broke and the pair were cast adrift in the Pacific Ocean, with neither a proper water supply nor workable communication equipment. After only a month, his companion succumbed and Alvarenga is said to have pushed his corpse overboard. For 12 more months, the fisherman claims to have survived by catching fish and birds with his hands. He would pull turtles and sharks from the water, drinking their blood to stay hydrated and eating their raw flesh. Although he managed to collect water when the rains came, he is said to have survived for more than a month by drinking his own urine.

On Monday, Alvarenga was found crawling up the beach of Ebon Atoll, 6,200 miles away in the Marshall Islands. His bearded visage immediately began to fill newspapers and television bulletins. It was as if Life of Pi, Yann Martel's fantasy novel, had come true. Only in the book, Pi Patel survives at seas for 227 days – Alvarenga claims to have managed 163 more.

It is a remarkable story, made all the more so by the fact that Alvarenga looked so well as he was helped ashore to the hospital in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands. He appeared ruddy, rather than burnt, and not in any way emaciated.

Perhaps inevitably, questions are now being asked about the veracity of his story. There is a log of a fishing boat going missing in Mexico in late 2012, but that particular vessel was lost in November. And the description of its occupants doesn't match Alvarenga and his companion.

Both Gee Bing, the acting Foreign Secretary of the Marshall Islands, and the American ambassador there, who acted as interpreter for Alvarenga, have been cautiously sceptical of his story. The latter, Tom Armbruster, said: "It is hard for me to imagine someone surviving 13 months at sea."

Hard, perhaps, but not impossible. There are a number of mind-bending tales of survival at sea. Steven Callahan, an American sailor on the return leg of a solo transatlantic journey in April 1982, spent 76 days adrift in the Atlantic on a 6ft life raft after his boat capsized in a collision with a whale.

A two-hour boat journey between two towns in the Kiribati islands lasted 105 days for Toakai Teitoi. He, too, was washed up near the Marshall Islands and claims to have survived on raw fish and rain water. He put his final rescue by a passing boat down to the ministrations of a shark, however. "If a shark hadn't nudged me awake, the crew of the boat might have thought I wasn't in trouble and might have carried on sailing past me," he said at the time of his rescue in 2012.

The longest time spent alone adrift, however, was 133 days. After 25-year-old Poon Lim's merchant ship was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Cape Town in 1942, he drifted across the entire Atlantic on a life raft, fetching up at the mouth of the Amazon.

It is worth noting that if Alvarenga's tale is to believed, he would have been at sea 259 days more than Lim. Is that credible? Views are mixed. According to Dr Simon Boxall, an oceanographer from the University of Southampton, it is definitely feasible.

"If you check the charts, you see that the flow of the current would take you from Mexico to the Marshall Islands. And the time frame fits, too: he would need only to be going at half a mile per hour, which is reasonable if he had the wind behind him."

Jeya Henry, a professor of nutrition at Oxford Brookes University, says a diet of raw fish and birds might also be enough to prevent death by starvation. "The human body is extremely resilient to food deprivation. The body is well adapted to survive long periods on restricted food intake," he says.

Survival experts, though, have been left scratching their heads. James Mandeville, a former army officer and expert in survival at sea, explains that he would expect to see certain ailments on the fisherman. "If he was using his hands to catch fish, they would be covered in sores from the salt water and bacteria in the sea. His eyesight would also have deteriorated from the glint of the sun on the water," he says.

Mandeville is most sceptical, though, about Alvarenga's claim to have saved enough water to survive for a month when there was no rain. "You couldn't survive for long drinking urine and turtle blood – it would finish off the kidneys and liver – and with the temperatures in the Pacific, you would need two to three litres of water per day to survive. He would need a very big water container," he says.

If Alvarenga's story can be proved, and proof in such cases is elusive, this may yet turn out to be the most extraordinary tale of survival ever known. Otherwise, it might just as well prove to be one of the best-publicised fish stories of modern times.

A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Louis van Gaal watches over Nani
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
transfersColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Business Development Manager (District Heating)

    £55000 Per Annum plus company car and bonus scheme: The Green Recruitment Comp...

    Lead Hand - QC

    competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Lead Hand - QCProgressive are recruiting...

    Chemical Engineer/Project Coordinator

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Chemical Eng...

    Sustainability Manager

    Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

    Day In a Page

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn