After being adrift on the Pacific Ocean for over a year, the last thing the lone survivor wanted would have been a 22-hour boat trip, however, he has been transported from Ebon Atoll to the main island of Majuro, and more details are beginning to emerge. In an interview the first fact to have been wrongly reported is the man’s name. He is not Jose Ivan, but Jose Salvador Alvarenga. The castaway is also not from Mexico as reported previously but from El Salvador, although he had been living in Capachula.
With these two key facts at their disposal, authorities are now better placed to trace and contact the man’s family and repatriate him in due course. He is 37 years old and father to a 10-year-old girl. Alvarenga washed up on remote Ebon Atoll last week in a disheveled and emaciated state. He is still sporting a full bushy beard and mop of long hair, but has recovered well, and is said to be in positive spirits. He waved to the crowds who had gathered to see him arrive into the port at Majuro, and was full of smiles. A clue to the physical toll of his long ordeal at sea was that a male nurse had to help him walk down the gangplank.
After an assessment at the hospital, Alverenga spoke about his adventure. He had set off on a one day fishing trip with a young friend, Exekel, (also spelt as Xiquel or Ezekiel) a teenager. Exekel did not survive beyond the first month afloat. Strong northerly winds had blown them off course and into the ocean. They had hoped to catch shrimp and shark meat. It was a few days before Christmas in 2012 when they set off. Alvarenga was speaking to the US Ambassador to the Marshall Islands, Tom Armbruster, and told him he had been a fisherman for many years. He confirmed he had lived off turtles, fish and birds caught with his bare hands.
Parts of his account have not been confirmed, and there are still some unanswered questions. Tony de Brum, who is the minister-in-assistance to the president, admitted that the fisherman was “not fully coherent.” It would seem his long episode of solitude had affected him, and he said that he felt “crazy” with “holes in his memory.” De Brum added that they were not pressing him too hard for more details as yet, as he was still receiving medical attention. One thing he can not recollect is his own birthdate, but he did give his mother’s name and the name of the Mexican fishing company that employed him: Camoronera Dela Costa.
In a written report, he is described as “extremely loopy” and still “hungry, swollen and in pain.” It was also noted that he needed a good haircut. Alvarenga, through an interpreter, had said he had to force down the raw food he caught by holding his nose. His young friend was unable to do this and had starved to death. He had disposed of the body over board. Left by himself, he prayed and asked God to send food to the boat.
The castaway did not claim to be especially religious nor to belong to any particular sect of the church, but he kept his mind on God and his first words on spying trees and land were “Oh God.” For a few days after the death of his companion he had seriously contemplated suicide, but he couldn’t find it in himself to “feel the pain” nor bring himself to do it.
He never knew what day it was, only “the sun and the night.” Despite the length of time he was drifting, there were only two days of big waves. After periods where there had been no rain, he had to drink his own urine. He developed a method of catching small sharks, by using his own arm as a bait, trailing it in the water, than grabbing them by the tail. He claimed he was never bored and not scared either.
Alvarenga was shocked when he was told he was in the Marshall islands, he had never heard of them before. He told of how he had gone straight into a “mountain of sleep” after seeing trees and coming in to land at last. When he awoke the next morning, he saw some chickens and a small house on the shore. He then spotted two native women who were shouting and screaming at his extraordinary appearance.
Immigration chief of the Marshall islands, Damien Jacklick, said they were still gathering more information and moving forwards in their endeavors to reunite the man with his family. The first interview with the castaway has solved some of the riddle of his long sojourn at sea, but there are still question marks over the story. He is now desperate to return home.
By Kate Henderson