Salvadorean fisherman recounts his incredible tale of survival in the Pacific

A 37-year-old fisherman from El Salvador has washed ashore in the Marshall Islands and told authorities he survived a 13-month journey across the Pacific Ocean by drinking his own urine and eating raw turtles, fish and birds.

José Salvador Alvarenga says he set sail from southern Mexico in December 2012 for what was supposed to be a one-day shark-fishing expedition. When his seven-meter fiberglass boat lost power, he claims he began drifting and kept drifting until he landed nearly 11,000 kilometers away. He says he was forced to throw his teenage companion overboard after the young man died because he could not handle the diet they were forced to eat.

Authorities have not confirmed the story, and some have raised doubts about its plausibility.

But marine survival trainer and former U.S. Navy diver Terry Crownover said Alvarenga’s ordeal is entirely believable. “In the world today, anything is possible. You’ll have people that will give up within the first hour, and you’ve got some people that are just not going to give up. And it’s just staying focused. And his big advantage was being out of the water and having some means of protection from the sun and loss of fluids, but I believe it is possible because you look back at case studies of people who have gone almost that duration in open life rafts.”

And Crownover, Director of Training at the Marine Survival Training Institute at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, is not alone.

Longtime Marshall Islands resident and filmmaker Jack Niedenthal interviewed Alvarenga Monday for CNN. He said Tuesday that Alvarenga’s initial reluctance to talk to the media and his state of exhaustion following his rescue lead him to believe the story is not a hoax.

Alvarenga was found last week on the beach almost naked and hungry, but in relatively good shape, by two women on the tiny atoll of Ebon in the southern Marshall Islands.

“When he arrived, he appeared very bloated, he’s got a very big beard and haggy hair… he looks exactly like Tom Hanks in ‘Castaway,'” said Niedenthal. Niedenthal said Alvarenga said he drank turtle blood and his own urine in order to stay alive.

“He said the biggest thing was the water. When there wasn’t water, he just drank his urine a little bit at a time, just to keep himself somewhat hydrated. And then he said it would pour rain and the boat would fill up with rain water, and that’s what he would drink,” he said.

Marine survival trainer Crownover said Alvarenga was in an area of the ocean that does appear to have a food supply chain that would enable him to capture rain water, as well as water from fish he might have caught.

Crownover said Alvarenga also was on what he called a good platform for survival, in that he was on a vessel rather than a raft. Crownover said that would allow him to stay dry and minimize the risk of hypothermia and threats from creatures in the water.

And there is a precedent for such a journey. In 2006, three Mexican fisherman were rescued after spending about nine months adrift.

Members of Alvarenga’s family, in Silver Spring, Maryland, expressed relief at his rescue. While some had given him up for dead, his mother, María, who remains in El Salvador, insisted he was alive.

Alvarenga said he now wants to return to Mexico. Diplomats from there, the United States and El Salvador are discussing his relocation.

Alvarenga said while on his journey he considered committing suicide several times, but survived by praying to God, thinking about his family, and dreaming of eating his favorite food, tortillas.

And it’s that mental will to live that Crownover said is the key to survival. “You stay focused, you accomplish anything. The human race has gotten this far on that kind of thought.”

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