Amid intense speculation about whether José Salvador Alvarenga’s tales of being lost at sea on a tiny fishing skiff in the Pacific are or aren’t stuff of fiction, some details are now beginning to get confirmed.
The Salvadoran shark fisherman claimed to have gotten blown out to sea more than a year ago off the coast of Mexico with a companion who died a couple months later. Alvarenga said he survived on fish that he scooped out of the ocean, sea birds, barnacles and by drinking his own urine, until he washed up Jan. 30 on the isle of Ebon in the Marshall Islands.
Immediately, questions were raised. Tom Armbruster, the U.S. ambassador in the capital city of Majuro, told the Associated Press, “It's hard for me to imagine someone surviving 13 months at sea.”
The acting secretary of foreign affairs for the Marshall Islands, Gee Bing, was even more blunt with his doubts.
“I’m not sure if I believe his story," he told the Daily Mirror in London. "When we saw him, he was not really thin compared to other survivors in the past ... Once we start communicating with where he’s from, we’ll be able to find out more.”
According to the London Daily Mail, the fisherman’s parents were tracked down by El Salvador’s El Mundo newspaper in the village of Garita Palmera, near the Guatemalan border, who displayed photos of a much younger, clean-shaven Alvarenga. They hadn’t seen their son in eight years, they said.
Alvarenga had spent more than a decade in the fishing village of Costa Azul in Mexico’s state of Chiapas. “I had heard that he had gone to sea and was lost at sea,” his father, José Ricardo Orellana, told El Mundo, “but I always prayed for his well-being.”
“I dreamed about him,” said his mom, María Julia Alvarenga. “I saw him alive in my dreams.'
His 14-year-old daughter, Fatima, who lives with her grandparents, said that the when he returns home, “First thing I'll do is hug him and kiss him.”
Alvarenga claimed that spent his entire time adrift in a 24-foot Fiberglas fishing boat without shelter. On the side, the boat reads, according to the Guardian in London, “Shrimpers of the Shore,” the name of a fishing cooperative in the Mexican state of Chiapas.
Even the owner of the boat, Cesar Castillo, has a hard time believing Alvarenga's story. “It's incredible to survive that long,” he said. "It's hard to think how anybody could go more than six or seven months without getting scurvy at least.”
There are also discrepancies between Alvarenga's account and official records. According to the fisherman, at first he shared the tiny vessel with a teenager he could only remember as “Ezequiel.”
The Guardian tracked down the Chiapas rescue services official who oversaw the disappearance of a fishing boat in the region on Nov. 17, 2012. Jaime Marroquín confirmed to the paper that a boat manned by two fisherman was reported missing from Costa Azul two days after it set out.
“The winds were high,” Marroquín said. “We carried out an intense search but we had to stop the search flights after two days because of poor visibility.”
The official report identifies the two missing fishermen as Cirilo Vargas and Ezequiel Córdova. Both men were identified as being in their late 30s.
According to Alvarenga, his companion’s death made him contemplate suicide, the New York Post reported. “For four days I wanted to kill myself,” he said, adding that the only thing that kept him going was his faith. “If I was going to die, I would be with God. So I wasn’t scared.”
Fishermen in Chiapas remember Alvarenga by the nickname “La Chancha,” which is regional slang meaning “pig.”
When he was rescued by native Marshall Islanders, his first request was for tortillas.
Alvarenga received a haircut courtesy of the local American embassy. Photos reveal a distinct resemblance to the younger man in the photos shown by his parents.