Sustained by rainwater, coconuts and the raw meat of a solitary seagull that landed on their small aluminium boat, three teenagers survived 50 days adrift in the Pacific before being rescued by fishermen.
Memorial services had already been held for Samuel Perez and Filo Filo, both 15, and Edward Nasasu, 14, who disappeared from a coral atoll north of Samoa on 5 October. An extensive search by a Royal New Zealand Air Force Orion had found no trace of the trio, from the New Zealand territory of Tokelau.
Then the crew of a tuna ship sailing in waters it did not usually frequent on Wednesday noticed a boat in the distance, and people on it waving frantically: the missing boys, alive and well – albeit very skinny, very sunburnt and very dehydrated.
The boys had drifted 1,400km across a remote and little-travelled corner of the Pacific, and had the tuna vessel not decided to take a shortcut home to New Zealand, they would almost certainly not have survived. They had last eaten a fortnight earlier, and with no rain in recent days, had begun drinking seawater. "It was a miracle we got to them," Tai Fredricsen, first mate of the ship, the San Nikunau, told the Fairfax Media group.
When the crew spotted them, the boys were just west of Uvea, in the French territory of Wallis and Futuna, north-east of Fiji. "We saw a small vessel, a little speedboat, on our bows and we knew it was a little weird," Mr Fredericsen said. "We had enough smarts to know there were people in it and those people were not supposed to be there.
"I pulled the vessel up as close as I could to them, and asked them if they needed any help. They said: 'Very much so!' They were ecstatic to see us. They were very skinny, but physically in good health, compared to what they have been through."
The three boys, who went missing from Atafu atoll after a sporting event, had a small supply of coconuts which ran out after two days. They captured water at night in a tarpaulin, and a fortnight ago managed to trap and eat one bird. But they had no other food and the situation appeared dire when they had to resort to drinking salt water.
The San Nikunau fishes in waters belonging to the island nation of Kiribati and normally offloads its catch in American Samoa. On this occasion, though, the crew decided to head home. "We generally don't take this route, and we were following the fastest line to New Zealand," said Mr Fredericsen, who is also the ship's medical officer.
He told the New Zealand Press Association the teenagers were in surprisingly good spirits after seven weeks at sea and that he nursed them back to health with fruit and water. He also bandaged their sunburnt skin, which had been exposed day after day to the tropical sun.
Having given them up for dead, the boys' families – who held a memorial service for them last month, attended by 500 people – were euphoric to hear from them. The trio, who were yesterday listening to music and watching cartoons, will be taken to hospital when the tuna ship docks in the Fijian capital, Suva, today.
But to return home they will have to make another sea voyage – because tiny Tokelau has no airport.
Tales of survival at sea
The crew of the Essex
In 1820, 21 crew members of US whaleship the Essex piled into rescue vessels when a whale rammed into their ship, sinking it. Despite landing on a lush island, the sailors soon ran out of food and turned to cannibalism. After 93 days, eight were rescued by a passing ship.
The 23-year-old Indonesian man washed away during 2004's Boxing Day tsunami survived in the Indian Ocean for eight days by clinging to tree branches and eating coconuts. He was found by a passing ship 100 miles from Sumatra.
The crew of HMS Bounty
The infamous mutiny on the Bounty occurred in 1789, when the crew rebelled against their captain and abandoned ship for Tahiti. They burnt Bounty to avoid being tracked down, but those loyal to the captain managed to sail the small boat to Timor in the Dutch East Indies, and report the mutiny.Reuse content