WELLINGTON, New Zealand – Its a story that almost defies belief: A man leaves Mexico in December 2012 for a day of shark fishing and ends up surviving 13 months on fish, birds and turtles before washing ashore on the remote Marshall Islands thousands of miles away.
But thats what a man identifying himself as 37-year-old Jose Salvador Alvarenga told the U.S. ambassador in the Marshall Islands and the nations officials during a 30-minute meeting Monday before he was taken to a hospital for monitoring. Alvarenga washed ashore on the tiny atoll of Ebon in the Pacific Ocean last week before being taken to the capital, Majuro, on Monday.
Its hard for me to imagine someone surviving 13 months at sea, said Ambassador Tom Armbruster in Majuro. But its 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.
If true, the mans ordeal would rank among the greatest tales ever of survival at sea.
Mexicos Foreign Relations Department says the man told Mexicos ambassador to the Philippines, Julio Camarena, that he set out from an area near the coastal town of Tonala in Chiapas state, which would mean his journey covered a distance of more than 6,500 miles, if he drifted in a straight line.
Armbruster said the soft-spoken man complained of joint pain Monday and had a limp but was able to walk. He had long hair and a beard, the ambassador said, and rather than appearing emaciated, he looked puffy in places, including around his ankles. Otherwise, he added, Alvarenga seemed in reasonable health.
Armbruster, who speaks Spanish, said the survivor told the following story:
Hes a native of El Salvador but had lived in Mexico for 15 years and fishes for a man he knows as Willie, catching sharks for $1.90 per pound.
On Dec. 21, 2012, Alvarenga left Mexico in his 23-foot fiberglass boat for a days fishing, accompanied by a teen he knew only as Ezekiel, who was between 15 and 18.
A storm blew the fishermen off course, and soon they were lost and adrift.
He talked about scooping up little fish that swam alongside the boat and eating them raw, Armbruster said. He also said he ate birds, and drank birds blood.
After about a month, Ezekiel died, the survivor told officials.
Alvarenga also talked about eating turtles. Once near Ebon, he swam ashore.
He thanked God, initially, that he had survived, the ambassador said. Hes very anxious to get back in touch with his employer, and also with the family of Ezekiel. Thats his driving motivation at the moment.
In Costa Azul, a fishing hamlet near Tonala, fishing boat owner Villermino Rodriguez Solis, who assumes his son is the Willie that Alvarenga referred to, said Alvarenga and a companion had vanished Nov. 18, 2012, which would imply the sea odyssey lasted 14 1/2 months.
Here, his colleagues went out in boats to look for them. They spent four days looking for them, said Villermino, who expressed surprise that Alvarenga had been found alive in the Marshall Islands.
Residents of Costa Azul said they didnt know Alvarengas real name. He had shown up looking for work years before but worked from fishing camps along the coast.
They knew him only by a nickname, La Chancha, used to describe heavy-set people. It was clear he was an experienced fisherman, they said.
Gee Bing, the acting secretary of foreign affairs for the Marshall Islands, said he was somewhat skeptical of Alvarengas account after meeting with him Monday.
It does sound like an incredible story, and Im 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 hes from, well be able to find out more information.
Bing said the man had no identification with him, and other details of his story remained sketchy.