Survival Story Under Scrutiny
February 6, 2014

Survival Story Under Scrutiny

Last Thursday, a man going by the name of Jose Salvador Alvarenga was plucked off a tiny atoll near the Marshall Islands. Alvarenga was lost at sea for 13 months (or 16, depending on the news outlet), surviving on a diet of sea turtles, fish, rainwater and his own urine, all while dreaming about his favorite food: tortillas… or so he would have us believe.

This story could have easily been woven into the fabric of folklore the world over a century ago. Perhaps, some might have even seen it as evidence on a divine tortilla-appreciating God who saw fit to bring mercy upon a hapless soul.

However, times are different and most of the news outlets covering this story immediately seized on the observation that Alvarenga didn’t exactly look like he should for a man who’d spent 13 months in the elements.

“He looked better than one would expect,” the AFP reported US ambassador to the Marshall Island Thomas Armbruster saying on Monday.

Authorities are currently working to figure out the veracity of Alvarenga’s story. The Mexican government issued a declaration Monday verifying Alvarenga’s identity and saying he was an El Salvador national who was residing in the town of Tonala, Mexico. CNN was able to track down Alvarenga’s family in Garita Palmera, El Salvador. The family told CNN that they hadn’t heard from him in some time and believed he might be dead. He has a 12-year-old daughter living there who said she doesn’t remember her father.

Alvarenga said he began what was supposed to be a day-long fishing expedition in late December 2012 with a teenager named Xiguel. The two-man crew eventually became lost in their 24-foot fiberglass boat.

“We had just finished a day of shark fishing when the motor died,” he said. “I wasn’t worried at first but I couldn’t get a radio signal, and meanwhile there was a wind that pushed us further out.”

Four months into the ordeal, the teenage boy died after being unable to survive on a diet of raw bird flesh, turtle blood and his own urine, Alvarenga said.

After months and months at sea, Alvarenga eventually hit land.

“I had just killed a bird to eat and saw some trees,” he told The Telegraph. “I cried, ‘Oh, God.’ I got to land and had a mountain of sleep. In the morning, I woke up and heard a rooster and saw chickens and saw a small house. I saw two native women screaming and yelling. I didn’t have any clothes; I was only in my underwear, and they were ripped and torn.”

As dramatic and feasibly miraculous as this story is – one can’t help but wonder why headlines from CNN, the AFP, The Telegraph and other had to include caveats, such as ‘castaway claims’ or ‘castaway says’ he survived for 13 months at sea when they could have simply included those skepticisms in the body of the story.

In today’s snark-infested cultural waters, it seems that sticking your neck out just might be too much of a risk when it could get it bit off by angry bloggers and Twitter trolls. While Alvarenga may have survived a harrowing ordeal for 13 months at sea – his story is just now being subjected to the journalistic equivalent.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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Brett Smith is a freelance journalist from Buffalo, NY. When not writing about science, medicine or other newsworthy topics, he enjoys Upstate New York by camping and hiking in the summers and snowboarding in the winters. Like most Buffalonians, he eats chicken wings year round.

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