It was a daylong fishing trip that went seriously bad, setting a shark fisherman adrift on an apparent 13-month odyssey from Mexico across the Pacific Ocean.
The fisherman washed up last week in the Marshall Islands, bedraggled, wildly bearded and dazed, barely able to communicate.
“He said he was on a fishing trip with another guy and somehow the north wind blew them and they got lost,” Gee Bing, acting foreign minister for the Marshall Islands, told Radio Australia.
Early reports of the castaway’s journey said he was Mexican. But Mexico’s Foreign Secretariat said in a statement Monday that its ambassador to the Philippines had spoken with the man and determined that he is from El Salvador. He’d apparently lived in Mexico for more than a decade.
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The fisherman was identified in press reports from Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, as Jose Salvador Albarengo. Other reports had his surname as Alvarenga and Alvarengo.
The castaway told diplomats that he set off with a fellow fisherman from the Pacific coast of the Mexican state of Chiapas 13 months ago for a daylong shark fishing excursion.
“But he was blown off course by a storm and he’s been at sea since Dec. 21, 2012,” Thomas H. Armbruster, the U.S. ambassador to the Marshall Islands, told CNN after speaking to the man in his native Spanish. “It did sound like he had a young man on the boat with him, and he was lost at sea.”
Photos showed medical personnel helping the castaway shuffle off a vessel that had picked him up from Ebon Atoll, a sparsely populated coral atoll of 22 islands that is the southernmost part of the Marshall Islands, an archipelago halfway between Hawaii and Australia. The islands are more than 5,700 miles from Mexico’s Pacific coast.
Armbruster said the Salvadoran fisherman was recovering.
“He’s talked about joint pain,” Armbruster told CNN. “I know he’d like a haircut. But he looks very good. I’m no medical professional, but I think he’s in much better shape than one would expect after such an ordeal.”
None of the fisherman’s immediate family could be contacted.
The castaway told Mexico’s ambassador to the Philippines, Julio Camarena Villasenor, that he has “not a single relative in Mexico, only in El Salvador,” the secretariat’s statement said.
Gee Bing told Radio Australia that he did not know how the castaway survived for the time he said he was adrift.
Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper said its reporter spoke to the fisherman in the Majuro hospital, saying the man’s 15-year-old fishing companion, who he named only as Ezekiel, died four months into the ordeal after he refused to eat further raw food. The man said he survived off of birds, turtles, fish and small sharks, sometimes drinking his own urine during periods without rain.
“I didn’t know the hour, nor the day, nor the date,” he told the Telegraph. “I only knew the sun and the night. . . . I never saw land. Pure ocean, pure ocean. It was very placid – only two days with big waves.”
If the fisherman’s story proves true and not lifted from a Hollywood script, he will certainly face many questions about how he endured such a long ordeal under the elements.
In a similar case in 2006, three Mexicans who said they drifted for nine months in the Pacific evoked as much suspicion as admiration upon their return – including demands that they submit to lie detector tests.
The fishermen said they’d been blown out into the Pacific from their port of San Blas in Nayarit state, and their twin engines eventually conked out. They said they survived on rainwater, raw fish and sea birds. Two of their companions died on the high seas.
Upon their return, though, some Mexicans voiced suspicions that the fishermen were drug traffickers and had disappeared for months to avoid criminal charges. The suspicions died down, however, when the Roman Catholic Episcopal Council of bishops declared the men to be “examples of faith.”