Castaway Jose Salvador Albarengo back on dry land after 13 months lost at sea – bearded but unbowed

How did José Salvador Alvarenga survive for so long – on so little?  Tim Walker tells his remarkable story

Bearded, bloated and wearing nothing but his bedraggled underwear, José Salvador Alvarenga stumbled ashore on a remote island in the Pacific last week with a remarkable story to tell. After setting off from the Mexican coast for a day’s fishing in December 2012, the 37-year-old claimed he had drifted across at least 5,500 miles of ocean to the Marshall Islands, surviving on little more than fish, birds and turtle blood.

On Monday, Mr Alvarenga arrived in the archipelago’s capital, Majuro, following a 22-hour journey from the coral atoll of Ebon, where he first washed up. Clutching a can of cola as he was helped down the gangplank of a police boat, he appeared to be in moderately good health.

Doctors suggested, however, the castaway could be suffering from edema, a condition which causes the body to swell after exposure to excessive sunlight and salt.

Mr Alvarenga spent 30 minutes meeting with local officials and the US Ambassador to the Marshall Islands, Thomas Armbruster, before being taken to a local hospital. Mr Armbruster acted as an interpreter for Mr Alvarenga, who speaks only Spanish.

But the details of the man’s ordeal remained in question and he reportedly contradicted himself several times.

“He looked better than one would expect,” Mr Armbruster said. “It’s hard for me to imagine someone surviving 13 months at sea. 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.”

According to Mr Alvarenga, he was born in El Salvador, the son of a baker, but moved to Mexico more than 15 years ago, where he worked as a shark and shrimp fisherman for a man called Willie, who paid him 25 pesos (£1.14) per pound of fish. On 21 December 2012, he went fishing for sharks in a 23ft fibreglass boat with his colleague Ezekiel, whose age he estimated at between 15 and 18.

The boat’s motor failed and for days the pair drifted close to the coast of Mexico, until the craft was swept out into the vast Pacific. Four months into their ordeal and unable to digest the raw food they had caught to eat, Ezekiel died.

Mr Alvarenga said he had rolled the younger fisherman’s body over the side of the boat and for several days contemplated taking his own life.

But with a knife and a meagre covering to keep off the sun, he carried on, catching fish, birds and turtles to eat – even a small shark, which he lured by putting one hand in the water, then grabbing it by the tail.

When there was no rain, he drank the blood of birds and turtles, or his own urine. Speaking to The Telegraph at a hospital in Majuro, the castaway said he soon lost any awareness of dates or how long he had been at sea. “I only knew the sun and the night,” he said. “I never saw land. Pure ocean, pure ocean. It was very placid – only two days with big waves.”

Mr Alvarenga, who has a 10-year-old daughter, said he kept himself going by thinking of his family. “I thought about them all the time,” he said. “I think that by now they think that I am dead. So I want to go home and show them that I am alive. I thank God that I am here.”

Last Thursday, the boat finally ran aground on a coral reef at Ebon Atoll, the southernmost point of the Marshall Islands – some 5,500 miles from Southern Mexico.

“I had just killed a bird to eat and saw some trees,” Mr Alvarenga said. “I cried: ‘Oh God’. I got to land and had a mountain of sleep. In the morning I woke up and heard a rooster and saw chickens and saw a small house. I saw two native women screaming and yelling. I didn’t have any clothes – I was only in my underwear and they were ripped and torn.”

The locals who found Mr Alvarenga were accompanied by a Norwegian anthropology student, Ola Fjelstad, who was living on Ebon Atoll. Mr Fjelstad told the BBC that the castaway’s boat was “grown over with shells and other sea animals. It had a live baby bird, a dead turtle, some turtle shells and fish leftovers inside.”

Mr Alvarenga is not the first to survive such an experience. In 2006, three Mexican fisherman were also found drifting near the Marshall Islands in a small fibreglass boat, nine months after setting sail. They too survived on rainwater, fish and birds, and on readings from a copy of the Bible.

Marshall Islands authorities said they were still trying to track down Mr Alvarenga’s family in El Salvador and arrange his repatriation.


Watch: What's the real story behind the Mexican castaway?

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

David Starkey's assessment
Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

'An enormous privilege and adventure'

Oliver Sacks writing about his life
'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago