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According to the MailOnline, frail but smiling Jose Salvador Alvarenga came ashore on the island of Majuro on Monday after a terrible 14 month ordeal that he only survived by catching birds, fish and drinking turtles as well as his own urine.
Looking rather more plump than one would expect the doctors said that his body had swollen from the conditions he had to endure, however questions have started to be asked about his incredible story, that he says started in December 2012 when he left Mexico for El Salvador with a companion aged between 15 and 18 who died four weeks into the journey.
Jose said he desperately wanted to phone his family – his wife and his 10-year-old daughter – in El Salvador but he cannot remember the name of the village or a phone number. ‘I have forgotten many things,’ he told MailOnline.
Jose says he has even forgotten exactly how old he is. He ‘believes’ he is about 36 to 38, even though his ordeal has made him appear much older. ‘He is here, with us, but he isn’t here with us,’ an interpreter who has spoken to Jose told MailOnline. ‘He is still disorientated, there is no doubt about that.’
Questions have started to mount over his ‘incredible’ story that if true makes his one of the most amazing in maritime history. Gee Bing, the acting secretary of foreign affairs for the Marshall Islands, said he was somewhat skeptical of Jose’s account after meeting with him Monday. Bing said the man had no identification with him and other details of his story remained sketchy, including the exact location of his departure from Mexico.
‘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.’ However, doctors said that he may need a long rest to recover his memory more fully.
He claims his 24ft boat had drifted helplessly across 8,000 miles of treacherous seas, remarkably staying upright in storms, sitting idly in calm conditions after he and a teenage shark fisherman endured the most soul-destroying of conditions after their engine broke down on December 21, 2012.
Despite their attempts to attract other vessels, they continued to drift further out to sea. He watched his teenage fishing companion, he knew only as Ezekiel, aged between 15 and 18, slowly die after four weeks under the relentless sun, unable to keep down and digest the raw food they were forced to eat. He has told doctors that he was forced to roll the body of his young companion over the side of the boat, but he stopped short of going into the details. ‘No, no,’ he said, when an interpreter for MailOnline asked him about that terrible moment.
He would only say: ‘I’m sad for him’.
Jose continued his own struggle for survival that was to endure for week after week, month after tortuous month with only a knife and a small covering to shield him from the sun. He contemplated suicide, ‘but I couldn’t do that,’ he said. ‘I prayed instead. I believed that God would protect me. He said he grabbed turtles to drink their blood when there was no rain water, swallowed down his own urine, snatched seagulls to eat their flesh and hooked fish and ate them raw – to keep a tenuous hold on life. He said: ‘I thank God and I thank the birds I caught to eat. I caught fish and at times I drank my own urine to have liquid. ‘Every day was the same, just the sea, the sea. I saw nothing more. The sea and my boat. I had no idea of time, but I know that it was December 21, 2012, when we left. The days at sea and the nights…they were all one after a while. ‘I lived on fish that were easy to catch and once I caught a small shark. I know sharks. I used to catch them all the time.’
‘I did not know about the ocean. I always fished off the coast of Mexico and I didn’t know what was out there in the big sea – but that is where I was taken to by God,’ he told the Mail as he rested in a chair at the hospital. ‘Every day was the same, just the sea, the sea. I saw nothing more. The sea and my boat.’ How had he kept his sanity? ‘When you need to eat, when you need to drink, you keep your mind alive. And you pray. I prayed to God all the time. I prayed to stay alive. ‘I thought of my wife and daughter all the time and knew they were missing me, but what could I do?’
He eventually hit land – literally – when he ran onto a reef near Ebon atoll. He had enough strength to swim ashore and later shocked two women with his unkempt appearance and tattered shorts. Sitting in a chair in the Majuro hospital, where local people were calling throughout the day to offer him gifts of food – which the hospital had to turn away as doctors remained concerned that he should be on a strict, light diet – he appeared outwardly healthy.
Asked how he had kept his sanity, he said: ‘When you need to eat, when you need to drink, you keep your mind alive. And you pray. I prayed to God all the time. I prayed to stay alive.’ He said thoughts of his family gave him added resolve. ‘I thought about them all the time,’ he told MailOnline. ‘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.’ The currents continued to pull him westwards – and it was by luck that he hit land, the most southerly atoll in the Marshall Islands.
If he had missed that landfall, his boat would possibly have drifted on for hundreds of miles more – and he doubts whether he would have survived that long. ‘My boat hit, and I swam ashore. I had the strength to do that.’ When he stumbled ashore he slept under the coconut trees, unaware that he was close to a village. Then he saw two women staring at him and shouting at the stranger who had landed on their territory in ragged shorts, unkempt hair and a bushy beard. He assured them he was no threat and accepted a ‘lift’ on another boat by their menfolk to the largest village on the Ebon Atoll.
They stared in astonishment at the stranger, whose skin was burned dry by the sun and the sea spray – but typical of their generosity they put him into one of their own small boats and carried him to their main village where they clothed and fed him and gave him fresh water. A Norwegan anthropology student, Ola Fieldstad, who was in the area managed to learn a little of his extraordinary story through sign language and a series of drawings. Then the local Mayor put a call through on the atoll’s only phone to alert the authorities in Majuro about the castaway. Astonishingly, the man who was in the care of the village for several days before he was brought to Majuro today, bore a striking resemblance to Tom Hanks’ character in the movie Castaway, with his brown beard and tangled hair.
Elements of Jose’s story raced around the world…he had been at sea, said first reports, for 16 months; his companion had died after four months and Jose was extremely emaciated. But Jose appears in much better health than expected from such an ordeal. Doctors said, however, that his body was bloated from the conditions he had suffered, possibly edema – a condition in which the body swells as a result of exposure to too much sunlight – and salt. His blood pressure was low and he walked cautiously, but it was more his mental condition than his physical appearance that medics on the main island suggested would be his greatest challenge in coming days.
He is expected to suffer the ongoing effects of prolonged exposure, fear of death, starvation and lack of water. Watching his teenage companion die would have added to his ordeal – and that was before the real terror began as he drifted for more than a year across the ocean. Marshall Islands immigration chief Damien Jacklick said: ‘With the help of the US ambassador, we were able to obtain information on his family members in El Salvador and the United States. We hope this information will help us track down his family.’ He would, said doctors, need complete rest while authorities in El Salvador, where his family live, make arrangements for him to be flown home to his wife and daughter.
Meanwhile, doctors said the fact that he was still alive after such a long period at sea, snatching what liquid and solid foods he could, was testament to his original good physical condition. A human can live for about three weeks without food but only three to five days without liquids. Turtle blood is rich in iron and proteins, providing the same sort of nutrition found in steak and eggs, but it is still a poor substitute for rainwater. He might also have consumed the turtles’ eyes, for they are filled with fluid. Jose’s constitution undoubtedly also ensured his survival.
A local Marshallese woman said that from her experience of other people who had died in remote locations it was because they had not been able to consume raw food – they kept vomiting it up – and this is believed to be how the other fisherman with Jose had died. A 24ft boat provides little room for exercise, even if a dehydrated and starving man has the strength to do any, so when he finally stumbled ashore he found it difficult to stand, complaining of pain in his knees. Then, revealing that he had not lost his sense of humour, he added: ‘If someone gets me home, I’m sure my boss will pay’ – a reference to his employers, the Camoronera Dela Costa fishing company, in Tapachula, on the Guatemala border.
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.
Jose’s survival would be one of the greatest ever. Other castaways have died after much shorter times in open waters, among them two Panamanian fishermen who, in 2012, succumbed to heat stroke and dehydration after 28 days.
Back in 2006, three Mexicans, also adrift near the Marshall Islands, survived on fish, birds and rainwater for nine months, saying later that their mental health was sustained by a copy of the Bible