Authorities in two continents, separated by the vast Pacific Ocean, are trying to verify both the identity and incredible story of a 37-year-old man who washed up on a remote atoll in the Marshall Islands last week.
Jose Salvador Alvarenga, a citizen of El Salvador, claims that he was adrift for more than a year before being rescued by islanders and a Norwegian anthropology student studying on the sparsely populated Ebon Atoll.
“[When] we first found his boat, [it] 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,” Ola Fjeldstad, the visiting student, told BBC. “He was in really bad shape in terms of strength and in terms of mental health.”
Once on dry land, Alvarenga – who only speaks Spanish – communicated with the atoll’s mayor by drawing pictures. Sporting a tousled beard and wearing only a torn pair of underwear, Alvarenga was eventually taken by boat to the Marshall Islands’ capital of Majuro, where he was met by journalists and the Spanish-speaking U.S. Ambassador to the Marshall Islands.
“It’s hard for me to imagine someone surviving 13 months at sea,” said the U.S. ambassador, Tom Armbruster. “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.”
Alvarenga’s ill-fated voyage began off the coast of Costa Azul, Mexico on December 21, 2012. Joined by the teenage son of a coworker, the pair embarked on a 7-meter fiberglass vessel for what was supposed to be a one-day shark fishing expedition.
The castaway said that the boat’s engines failed after being blown off course and into a storm surge. To stay alive, Alvarenga ate anything that he could catch with his hands, including small seabirds and fish. He drank turtle blood and rainwater – resorting to his own urine when nothing else was available.
After four weeks adrift, Alvarenga’s young companion died because he was unable to stomach the unsavory diet. Alvarenga was forced to throw the body overboard.
“For four days I wanted to kill myself. But I couldn’t feel the desire – I didn’t want to feel the pain. I couldn’t do it,” Alvarenga said in an exclusive Telegraph interview.
He drifted more than 8,000 kilometers before finally landing on Ebon’s reef, located roughly midway between Australia and Hawaii.
Alvarenga’s seemingly made-for-Hollywood story has drawn some skepticism – although three Mexican men survived a similar ordeal in 2006.
“It does sound like an incredible story and I’m not sure if I believe [it],” Gee Bing, the secretary of foreign affairs for the Marshall Islands, told The Guardian. “When we saw him, he was not really thin compared to other survivors in the past. I may have some doubts.”
Long-lost relatives in both El Salvador and the U.S. have confirmed Alvarenga’s identity, despite his disheveled appearance. They recognized one of his tattoos from a photo taken by Marshall Islands officials.
Medical officials reported that Alvarenga had very low blood pressure, but was in relatively good health otherwise. But the bearded survivor was apparently less concerned about his medical condition than his physical appearance.
“When do I get a haircut?” was one of the first things that Alvarenga asked, according to a translator.