WELLINGTON, New Zealand — It's a story that almost defies belief: A man leaves Mexico in December 2012 for a day of shark fishing and ends up surviving 13 months on fish, birds and turtles before washing ashore on the remote Marshall Islands thousands of miles away.
But that's what a man identifying himself as Jose Salvador Alvarenga, 37, told the U.S. ambassador in the Marshall Islands and the nation's officials during a 30-minute meeting Monday before he was taken to a local hospital for monitoring. Alvarenga washed ashore on the tiny atoll of Ebon in the Pacific Ocean last week before being taken to the capital, Majuro, on Monday.
"It's hard for me to imagine someone surviving 13 months at sea," said Ambassador Tom Armbruster in Majuro. "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."
Other officials reacted cautiously to the Spanish-speaking man's story as they tried to piece together more information.
Mexico's Foreign Relations Department said the man told Mexico's ambassador to the Philippines, Julio Camarena, that he set out from an area near the coastal town of Tonala in southern Chiapas state, which would mean his journey covered more than 6,500 miles, if he drifted in a straight line.
Armbruster said the man complained of joint pain Monday and had a limp but was able to walk. He had long hair and a beard, the ambassador said, and rather than appearing emaciated he looked puffy in places, including around his ankles. Otherwise, he added, Alvarenga seemed in reasonable health.
Armbruster said the survivor told the following story:
He's a native of El Salvador but had lived in Mexico for 15 years and fishes for a man he knows as Willie, catching sharks for 25 pesos ($1.90) per pound.
On Dec. 21, 2012, he left Mexico in his 23-foot fiberglass boat for a day's fishing, accompanied by a teen he knew only as Ezekiel, who was between 15 and 18.
A storm blew the fishermen off course, and soon they were lost and adrift. "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."
After about a month, Ezekiel died, the survivor told officials.
In Costa Azul, a fishing hamlet near Tonala, fishing boat owner Villermino Rodriguez Solis, who assumes his son is the "Willie" that Alvarenga referred to, said Alvarenga and a companion had gone missing on Nov. 18, 2012.