Jose Salvador Alvarenga: a tale of ocean survival that smells a bit fishy

Real-life castaway shares his story

A man who says he spent 13 months adrift in the Pacific Ocean begins sharing his extraordinary story of survival.

Jose Salvador Alvarenga's survival tale is the stuff of a Hollywood script.

Adrift and alone on the ocean for more than a year, the 37-year-old castaway says he survived by eating turtles, birds and sharks that he caught with his bare hands during an incredible voyage from Mexico to a remote coral atoll in the Marshall Islands.

He didn't have a fishing rod to catch marine life during the 12,500-kilometre journey, he told rescuers. He would catch small sharks by dangling one arm into the water and using it as bait. As a shark closed in, he would grab its tail and haul it onto his 7.3-metre fibreglass boat, he said.

His story, recounted after he washed ashore clad only in ragged underpants on Thursday last week, sounds almost too incredible to be true.

And at least one official in the Marshall Islands wants to verify Alvarenga's account before he swallows the survival tale, hook, line and sinker.

For one thing, Alvarenga appeared to be too well fed, said Gee Bing, the acting secretary of foreign affairs for the Marshall Islands who met with Alvarenga on Monday.

"It does sound like an incredible story and I'm not sure if I believe his story," said Mr Bing.

"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."

US ambassador Thomas Armbruster, who was acting as an interpreter for Marshall Islands authorities, also has some doubts about the story.

Mr Armbruster said the fisherman told him that he was originally from El Salvador but had been living in Mexico for 15 years before his epic voyage.

"He said he is a shrimp and shark fisherman," Mr Armbruster said. "He looked better than one would expect."

About 1000 curious onlookers crowded around the dock at the Marshall Islands capital Majuro on Monday for a glimpse of the long-haired fisherman, who smiled and waved briefly before he was whisked away for a medical check-up at Majuro Hospital.

Sporting a bushy beard and clutching a can of Coke, he was helped down the gangplank of a police patrol boat after a 22-hour trip from Ebon Atoll, the southernmost cluster of coral islands in the Marshalls where he washed ashore after apparently setting sail from Mexico on December 24, 2012.

Garbage patch

Erik van Sebille, an ocean circulation expert at the University of NSW, has an answer to doubts that the castaway's amazing tale of survival is true: “garbage”.

Tracking of what happens to rubbish, such as plastics, tossed or washed into the seas suggests a drifting boat from Mexico could have made its way to the Marshall Islands. (See how the trash travels here.)

“I think his story is correct” at least as far as the science of ocean currents goes, said Dr van Sebille.

“It would take about one to two years, approximately” to drift all the way across the Pacific, he said.

As it was, the castaway was lucky to make landfall because his next and final stop would probably have been the giant floating garbage patch in the north Pacific between Hawaii and California.

“If he would have not had the fortune to hit a beach, then he probably would have ended up in the garbage patch,” the research fellow at UNSW's Climate Change Research Centre said.

“His boat would have ended up floating around there for hundreds of years.”

The garbage patch is probably about the size of Western Australia and growing each year as ocean circulation draws ever more rubbish into the giant soup.

Shark-fishing expedition

Foreign ministry officials said Alvarenga told them during a debriefing that he was a 37-year-old whose full name was Jose Salvador Alvarenga.

He said he lived in Tapachula, near the Mexican border with Guatemala, and worked for a company named Camoronera Dela Costa.

Alvarenga said he was on a shark-fishing expedition with a youth named Xiquel when strong winds blew them off course and they became lost in December 2012.

Alvarenga said the boy, described as 15- to 18-years old, died a few weeks into the ordeal because he could not eat raw bird meat.

The surviving fisherman was found disorientated and clad only in ragged underpants last Thursday, after his 7.3-metre fibreglass boat floated onto a reef.

Unable to speak English, he communicated to his rescuers through pictures and gestures that he had survived the 12,500 kilometre odyssey by eating turtles, birds and fish and drinking turtle blood when there was no rain.

Alvarenga told The Telegraph in London that he had no idea where the Marshall Islands were.

He said his first words on spotting land were: "Oh, God."

“I had just killed a bird to eat and saw some trees,” he 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."

In good health

Mr 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.

The man's health appeared to be good, but his blood pressure was a bit low, Mr Bing said.

Jack Niedenthal, a film-maker based on Majuro, told Reuters that Alvarenga "got off the boat with a very bushy beard".

"He's having trouble walking, his legs are very skinny. I'm not ready to call this a hoax, I think this guy has done some serious time at sea," he said.

Medics plan to give Alvarenga a thorough check before he is interviewed by detectives.

He spoke briefly to a Spanish interpreter via a faltering radio link over the weekend while still at Ebon Atoll and said he was keen to return home.

"I feel bad," he said of his physical and mental state. "I am so far away. I don't know where I am or what happened."

Stories of survival in the vast Pacific are not uncommon.

In 2006 three Mexicans made international headlines when they were discovered drifting, also in a small fibreglass boat near the Marshall Islands, nine months after setting out on a shark-fishing expedition.

They survived on a diet of rainwater, raw fish and seabirds, with their hopes kept alive by reading the Bible.

Castaways from Kiribati, to the south, frequently find land in the Marshall Islands after ordeals of weeks or months at sea in small boats. with Peter Hannam and AFP