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Castaway's tale straight out of Hollywood

10:07 PM, Feb 3, 2014   |    comments
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USA TODAY - In a story that reminds some of a cross between Hollywood lost-at-sea films Cast Away and All is Lost, reports have surfaced of an incredible survival tale of a fisherman who washed up on the Marshall Islands after being adrift at sea for over a year.

Jose Salvador Alvarenga washed ashore on a tiny atoll in the Marshall Islands last week, telling authorities that a day of shark fishing off the Mexican coast turned into a 13-month saga at sea.

Alvarenga, 37, said he survived on turtles, fish, birds and their blood for more than a year after a storm blew his fiberglass boat off course on Dec. 21, 2012. He said he was accompanied by a teenager he knew only as Ezekeil, who died about a month later.

Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer at the University of New South Wales, said there was a good chance a boat drifting off Mexico's west coast would eventually be carried by currents to the Marshall Islands. He said such a journey would typically take 18 months to two years depending on the winds and currents, although 13 months was possible.

"The way that the currents in the Pacific work is that there is a very strong westerly current just north of the equator and that basically drives you directly from Mexico all the way toward Indonesia and in the path, you go right over the Marshall Islands," he said.

There have been other cases of people surviving for months adrift in the Pacific. In a case with similarities, three Mexican shark fishermen in 2006 said they were lost at sea for nine months before being rescued near the Marshall Islands. In 1989, four men survived nearly four months in the Pacific Ocean near New Zealand after their multihulled boat capsized.

Alvarenga came ashore on the atoll of Ebon and was hospitalized Monday. His story has yet to be confirmed. He wore long hair and a beard, but seemed in reasonably good health, according to media reports.

"It's hard for me to imagine someone surviving 13 months at sea," said Tom Armbruster, U.S. ambassador to the Marshall Islands. "But 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.

"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."

Alvarenga said he survived by eating whatever he could catch with his hands. He said he had to hold his own nose to choke down the raw food, according to an NBC report.

Gee Bing, the acting secretary of foreign affairs for the Marshall Islands, said he was somewhat skeptical of Alvarenga's account after meeting with him Monday.

"It does sound like an incredible story and I'm 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 he's from, we'll be able to find out more information."

Alvargena is a native of El Salvador and has lived in Mexico for 15 years.

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