Pacific castaway arrives in Marshall Islands capital

Monday 03 February 2014 18.44
The Marshall Islands authorities prepare a welcome for a Pacific leaders' summit in Majuro
The Marshall Islands authorities prepare a welcome for a Pacific leaders' summit in Majuro

Sporting a bushy beard and clutching a can of cola, a castaway who says he survived more than a year adrift in the Pacific Ocean has arrived in the Marshall Islands capital Majuro.

A nurse had to help the man previously identified as Jose Ivan down the gangplank of a police patrol boat after a 22-hour trip from the remote coral atoll where he washed ashore last week

He apparently set sail from Mexico on 24 December 2012.

About 1,000 curious onlookers crowded the dock for a glimpse of the long-haired fisherman, who smiled and waved briefly before he was whisked away for a medical check-up at Majuro Hospital.

The castaway told US ambassador Thomas Armbruster, who was acting as an interpreter for Marshall Islands authorities, that he was originally from El Salvador but had been living in Mexico for 15 years before his epic voyage.

"He said he is a shrimp and shark fisherman," Mr Armbruster said in Majuro minutes after talking to him. "He looked better than one would expect."

And foreign ministry officials said he told them during a debriefing that he was a 37-year-old whose full name was Jose Salvador Albarengo.

He said he lived in Tapachula, near the Mexican border with Guatemala, and worked for a company named Camoronera Dela Costa.

Mr Albarengo said he was on a shark-fishing expedition with a youth named Xiquel when strong winds blew them off course and they became lost.

Mr Albarengo said the boy, described as 15 to 18 years old, died a few weeks into the ordeal because he could not eat raw bird meat.

The surviving fisherman was found disorientated and clad only in ragged underpants last Thursday, after his 7.3m fibreglass boat floated onto a reef at Ebon Atoll, the southernmost cluster of coral islands in the Marshalls.

Unable to speak English, he communicated to his rescuers through pictures and gestures that he had survived the  12,500km odyssey by eating turtles, birds and fish and drinking turtle blood when there was no rain.

Marshall Islands immigration chief Damien Jacklick said authorities were still gathering information and the foreign affairs department planned to contact overseas officials to arrange his repatriation.

"With the help of the US ambassador, we were able to obtain information on his family members in El Salvador and the United States," he said.

"We hope this information will help us track down his family."

Medics plan to give Mr Albarengo a thorough check before he is interviewed by detectives.

He spoke briefly to a Spanish interpreter via a faltering radio link over the weekend while still at Ebon Atoll and said he was keen to return home.

"I feel bad," he said of his physical and mental state. "I am so far away. I don't know where I am or what happened."

Stories of survival in the vast Pacific are not uncommon.

In 2006 three Mexicans made international headlines when they were discovered drifting, also in a small fibreglass boat near the Marshall Islands, nine months after setting out on a shark-fishing expedition.

They survived on a diet of rainwater, raw fish and seabirds, with their hopes kept alive by reading the Bible.

Castaways from Kiribati, to the south, frequently find land in the Marshall Islands after ordeals of weeks or months at sea in small boats.