Doubts surface as castaway reveals gripping Pacific tale
Published 04/02/2014 | 02:30
Shuffling down the gangplank of a rescue boat, Jose Salvador Alvarenga smiled briefly as he stepped on shore.
As a crowd gathered, he began to recount a tale so stunning that cynics might not consider it entirely shipshape.
Mr Alvarenga said he left southern Mexico in December 2012 with a 15-year-old named Ezekiel on a day-trip to catch blacktip sharks.
More than a year later, he washed up alone, 12,000km away on a Pacific atoll in ragged underpants and a bushy beard, after an ordeal that could be a record for survival at sea.
Asked how he survived, Mr Alvarenga said he prayed to God. "If I was going to die, I would be with God," he said. "So I wasn't scared. I imagine this is an incredible story for some people."
Speaking at the hospital in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, the survivor sat meekly on a soft chair in clothes donated by local authorities.
"I didn't know the hour, nor the day. I only knew the sun and the night," he said. "I never saw land. Pure ocean. I was worried I would go crazy."
Questions have already been raised about Mr Alvarenga's account. "It's hard for me to imagine someone surviving 13 months at sea," said Tom Armbruster, US ambassador in the Marshall Islands. "But it's also hard to imagine how someone might arrive here out of the blue. Certainly this guy has had an ordeal."
Some small scars were visible on Mr Alvarenga. His fingers had apparently been pecked by seagulls, which he said he killed by hand before drinking their blood.
His ankles were bloated and swollen, because he would trail his feet in the water for long periods to prevent the skin from cracking.
His condition and strength has surprised doctors, who are used to seeing fishermen from neighbouring islands drift ashore after weeks or months. Survivors of such ordeals are typically emaciated and fragile. Mr Alvarenga's only serious pain was in his joints; while he appeared well fed.
However, a Norwegian anthropologist who saw him when he arrived last week on the outlying Ebon atoll said he was "not in great shape".
Mr Alvarenga's account sometimes appeared confused. He mixed up details such as the date of his departure or his age of 36 or 37 – though this may not be unusual after more than a year at sea.
Originally from El Salvador, he had been fishing in Mexico for 15 years and lived in Tapachula. He has three brothers and a 10-year-old daughter in El Salvador. He said his ordeal began several hours into the trip when his boat's motor died, 40km from the coast. He and Ezekiel began to drift westwards into the Pacific.
Four months later, Ezekiel became increasingly weak after refusing to eat, and died. Mr Alvarenga said he contemplated taking his own life but he mustered the courage to survive, armed only with a knife. (© Daily Telegraph, London)