José Salvador Alvarenga is a Salvadoran fisherman who was found on 30 January 2014, aged 36 or 37, in the Marshall Islands after spending 13 months adrift in a fishing boat in the Pacific Ocean. He survived on a diet of raw fish, turtles, small birds, sharks, and rainwater. He swam to shore at Tile Islet, a small island that is part of Ebon Atoll, on January 30. Two locals, Emi Libokmeto and Russel Laikidrik, found him naked, clutching a knife and shouting in Spanish. He was treated in a hospital in Majuro before flying to his family home in El Salvador on February 10.
Alvarenga's story was heavily reported worldwide despite initial criticism from skeptics. He is the first person in recorded history to have survived in a small boat lost at sea for more than a year.
Alvarenga was born in Garita Palmera, Ahuachapán, El Salvador, to José Ricardo Orellana and María Julia Alvarenga. Orellana owns a flour mill and store in the town. Alvarenga has a daughter who grew up in Garita Palmera with his parents, and several brothers who live in the United States. He left El Salvador in the late 1990s for Mexico, where he worked as a fisherman for 15 years, employed for a time by Villermino "Willie" Rodriguez. At the time of his rescue, he had not been in touch with his family in eight years.
Alvarenga set out from the fishing village of Costa Azul, near Pijijiapan, off the coast of Chiapas, Mexico on 17 November 2012, accompanied by a 23-year-old co-worker whom he knew only as "Ezequiel". Most subsequent accounts give Ezequiel's age as at least 40, rather than 23, and identify him as Ezequiel Córdoba, a local resident of Costa Azul. Alvarenga, an experienced sailor and fisherman, was intent on a 30-hour shift of deep-sea fishing during which he hoped to catch sharks, marlins, and sailfish, but his usual fishing mate was unable to join him. He arranged instead to bring along the inexperienced Córdoba, with whom he had never worked or even spoken.
Shortly after embarking, their boat, a 7-meter (24-foot) topless fiberglass skiff equipped with a single outboard motor and a refrigerator-sized icebox for storing fish, was blown off course by a storm that lasted five days, during which the motor and most of the portable electronics were damaged. Though they had caught nearly 500 kilograms (1,100 lb) of fresh fish, the pair was forced to dump it overboard to make the boat maneuverable in the bad weather. Alvarenga managed to call his boss on a two-way radio and ask for help before the radio's battery died. Having neither sails nor oars, no anchor, no running lights, and no other way to contact shore, the boat began to drift aimlessly across the open ocean. Much of the fishing gear was also lost or damaged in the storm, leaving Alvarenga and Córdoba with only a handful of basic supplies and little food.
The search party organized by Alvarenga's boss failed to find any trace of the missing men and gave up after two days due to poor visibility. As days became weeks, Alvarenga and Córdoba learned to scavenge their food from whatever sources presented themselves. Alvarenga managed to catch fish, turtles, jellyfish, and seabirds with his bare hands, and the pair occasionally salvaged bits of food and plastic refuse floating in the water. They collected drinking water from rainfall when possible, but more frequently were forced to drink turtle blood or their own urine.
According to Alvarenga, Córdoba lost all hope around four months into the voyage after becoming sick from the raw food and eventually died by refusing to eat. Alvarenga has said that he contemplated suicide for four days after Ezequiel died, but that it was his strong religious faith that ultimately prevented him from doing so. He kept Córdoba's corpse on the boat for six days before putting it into the ocean. Alvarenga also stated that, while at sea, he frequently dreamed about his favorite foods, as well as his parents.
Alvarenga claimed to have seen numerous transoceanic container ships while drifting alone but was unable to solicit help. He kept track of time by counting the phases of the moon. After counting his 15th lunar cycle, he spotted land: a tiny, desolate islet, which turned out to be a remote corner of the Marshall Islands. On 30 January 2014, he abandoned his boat and swam to shore, where he stumbled upon a beach house owned by a local couple. Alvarenga's journey had lasted 438 days.
The length of his voyage has been variously calculated as 5,500 to 6,700 miles (8,900 to 10,800 km) long, the former of which is the approximate distance between Mexico and the Marshall Islands as the crow flies. Though some newspapers originally claimed that Alvarenga had been at sea for 16 months, he never said so himself (he did, however, refer to himself as José Ivan). The newspapers eventually corrected their error and shortened his voyage to 13 months. According to Gee Bing, Marshall Islands' acting secretary of foreign affairs, Alvarenga's vital signs were all "good," with the exception of blood pressure, which was unusually low. Bing also said that Alvarenga had swollen ankles and struggled with walking. On 6 February the doctor treating him reported that his health had "gone downhill" since the day before and that he was on an IV drip due to dehydration.Family
Alvarenga's parents, who had not been in contact with him for years, had feared he was dead long before he went missing, and were overjoyed to discover he was still alive. Alvarenga's father said that he had prayed for his son while he was missing, while his mother said that she dreamt about her son during this time. Alvarenga's daughter, upon hearing that her father had been found, said that after he returned home, the "first thing I'll do is hug him and kiss him."Initial doubts and support
The implausibility of someone surviving so long at sea on a small craft led a number of commentators to doubt Alvarenga's story, though investigators were able to confirm some of the basic details. The owner of the boat Alvarenga used, César Castillo, said that "it's incredible to survive that long. It's hard to think how anybody could go more than six or seven months without getting scurvy at least." However, in an interview, Claude Piantadosi of Duke University said that fresh meat from birds and turtles contains vitamin C and that eating a lot of it, as Alvarenga claims to have done, "would provide sufficient vitamin C to prevent scurvy." The Guardian found the Chiapas rescue services official, Jaime Marroquín, who was informed that a fishing boat had gone missing in the area on November 17, 2012. The official report identified the two fishermen as being named Cirilo Vargas and Ezequiel Córdova, and that both of them were in their thirties. Marroquín also indicated that according to the boat's owner, Vargas was born in El Salvador. The local authorities originally searched for Vargas and Córdova, but called off the search after two days, citing heavy fog and bad weather. In regard to the discrepancy between the names of the fishermen in the 2012 report and those of Alvarenga and Ezequiel, CBS News reported that "records in Mexico are often filed with such mistakes." Another explanation was provided by Alvarenga's parents, as reported by National Post, when they confirmed that in Mexico their son is known as Cirilo.
Tom Armbruster, the United States Ambassador to the Marshall Islands, acknowledged that it seems implausible for someone to survive at sea for 13 months, but that "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." In addition, The Guardian's Jo Tuckman argued that the fact that a fishing boat had been reported missing on November 17, 2012 "lin[es] up" with Alvarenga's claim that he went to sea the following month and that this supports the view that "at least some of his story holds up." In addition, Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer at the University of New South Wales, said that it was entirely possible that sea currents could carry a boat from Mexico to the Marshall Islands. He also estimated that such a trip would take about 18 months, but said that 13 months was still plausible. Further support for Alvarenga's tale came from a study by researchers from the University of Hawaii. The study modeled the path a boat might have taken after departing from the Pacific Coast in Mexico based on wind and current conditions and concluded that it would end up "within 120 miles of Ebon", where Alvarenga actually landed.
In April 2014, Alvarenga's lawyer told a press conference that Alvarenga had passed a lie detector test while being asked about his voyage.
After 11 days in hospital, Alvarenga was deemed healthy enough to return to El Salvador. However, he was diagnosed with anemia, had trouble sleeping and developed a fear of water. In 2015, he gave a series of interviews to the journalist Jonathan Franklin about his ordeal, who published his story as the book 438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea.
Shortly after the release of his book, the family of Ezequiel Córdoba sued Alvarenga for one million dollars, claiming he survived by eating their relative. Alvarenga's lawyer has denied this accusation.