Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

A year adrift on the Pacific? A medical Q&A

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — The story of a Salvadoran fisherman who says he survived more than a year adrift on the Pacific Ocean raises many medical questions. The Associated Press spoke with Claude Piantadosi, a professor of medicine at Duke University and author of the book The Biology of Human Survival, to find out what is physically possible and for his view on the tale of Jose Salvador Alvarenga. This is an edited version of the interview:

How long can a human survive without any water, or without any food?

The average is about 100 hours (approximately four days) without water and about five or six weeks without food. You can survive much longer with just a little food, although you'll lose weight and run into vitamin deficiency problems. So it would have been vital for Alvarenga to have collected both food and water during his journey. The Pacific's regular squalls would have provided some rainwater that he could have scooped from the bottom of his boat.

How important is shade?

Absolutely critical. You get significantly warmer in direct sunlight and sweat more. The pictures of the boat show a fiberglass box in the middle which he could have sheltered in, and any type of canvas would have helped keep him out of the sun.

Alvarenga described catching turtles, fish and birds with his hands and eating them. Is that plausible?

Over time, the underside of the boat would have become its own ecosystem as barnacles, seaweed and jellyfish collected there, which in turn attracts other creatures. How often can you grab a turtle or catch a fish with your bare hands? I don't know. Bird blood is no more salty than human blood, so (it) would have provided some hydration.

Without fruit and vegetables, wouldn't he have developed scurvy?

Actually, unlike humans, birds and turtles make their own vitamin C, so fresh meat from those creatures, especially the livers, would provide sufficient vitamin C to prevent scurvy. British sailors used to get scurvy because they ate preserved meat that had oxidized and lost its vitamin C.

Wouldn't he get skin sores from all that water?

He'd need to keep mopping himself off and stay dry to avoid that. People on life rafts, or say a piece of floating wood, can develop real problems with macerated skin. Staying out of the water is a huge advantage.

There's some suggestion that Alvarenga was a large man before he left. Would being overweight provide an advantage?

It would be a significant advantage. He could live off his own body fat and muscle for a long time, so long as he was able to get some water, vitamins, micronutrients and a little protein.

Didn't he look too healthy, even a little bloated, when he arrived?

The appearances of malnutrition can manifest differently depending on how short you are on calories or protein. Some underfed children in Africa look like stick figures, others get swollen. It's only in end stage starvation that people get that really emaciated appearance.

Alvarenga seemed to give confused and contradictory answers to authorities. What kind of psychological effects would such a journey have?

I'm not an expert in psychiatry, but we all have the feature of resilience. It can be trained or even learned on the fly. For instance, soldiers learn to deal with combat horrors. Presumably he was out on the ocean every day as a fisherman before he went missing, so he would have been familiar with the environment and with adapting his behavior to the elements.

If he had nutritional deficiencies, he may have developed some dementia or other syndromes which compromised his mental state. I'm not surprised that some of the answers he gave were a bit off and he wasn't able to remember things.

How long would it take to recover from a voyage like this?

Hydration can be restored in just a day or two. Re-feeding can be tricky after a long period of starvation, as the body can lose the ability to absorb nutrients. Muscle rehabilitation and physical therapy can take several weeks.

Bottom line — is Alvarenga's story plausible?

Yes. It's unusual, to say the least. But reports out of Mexico indicate he did go missing in late 2012. As we have gotten more information, it's probably likely that he did survive at sea for 13 months.

A year adrift on the Pacific? A medical Q&A 02/06/14 [Last modified: Thursday, February 6, 2014 4:01pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. 5 things to do under $5: Where to see solar eclipse, Bucs training camp

    Events

    1 Solar eclipse: Turn around, bright eyes. Monday brings a total eclipse of the sun, and you'll need protective eyewear to see it. The bay area won't be plunged into darkness for a few minutes like the middle of the country, but with solar lenses you can see this rare event. The Museum of Science and Industry, …

    This photo shows a “diamond ring” shape during the 2016 total solar eclipse in Indonesia. For the 2017 eclipse over the United States, the National Science Foundation-funded movie project nicknamed Citizen CATE will have more than 200 volunteers trained and given special small telescopes and tripods to observe the sun at 68 locations in the exact same way.
  2. Florida man has some of Princess Di's wedding cake, plus 13,000 other royal items (w/photos)

    Human Interest

    John Hoatson recalls the day it all began with perfect clarity.

    John Hoatson poses with a photo taken in 2006 when he met Sarah “Fergie” Ferguson, the Duchess of York, for tea at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in California.
  3. Pasco doubles tourist tax to finance sports complex

    Tourism

    DADE CITY — Pasco County is doubling its tourist tax to 4 percent to build an indoor sports complex in Wesley Chapel and improve its outdoor boat ramps in west Pasco.

    Pasco County's plan to double its tourist tax on overnight accommodations to 4 percent is intended to help finance a $25 million sports complex in the Wiregrass Ranch area of Wesley Chapel. It  would include a 98,000-quare-foot multipurpose gymnaisium of eight basketball courts and dedicated space for gymnastics, cheerleading and a fitness center. Shown here is the four-court fieldhouse with 50,000-square-feet of space for competitions at  Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex.  Times photo by James Borchuck (2007)
  4. Les Miller on Charlottesville: 'This is not what we should about'

    Blogs

    TAMPA -- In the aftermath of the violent protests in Charlottesville, Va., and ahead of today's continued conversation on Tampa's Confederate monument, Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller on Wednesday looked to inspire unity in an invocation that a colleague called "inspirational."

    Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller prayed for unity during Wednesday's Hillsborough County Commission meeting, following the violent protests in Charlottesville that left 19 injured and one dead.
  5. Here's what Florida's gubernatorial contenders say about removing Confederate monuments from public lands

    Blogs

    Gwen Graham: "Our state's role in the Civil War and the deplorable promotion of slavery still cause deep pain today. We all have a responsibility to combat racism and hate wherever it …

    Protesters climb the Confederate Memorial in Tampa on Sunday night after more than 200 people marched down the streets of downtown Tampa to protest white supremacy. Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and Hillsborough Flaggers plan are standing guard now to protect the statute.