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Bearded Pacific castaway back in civilisation

03 February 2014, 12:00

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

A male 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 after apparently setting sail from Mexico in late 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," Armbruster said Monday in Majuro minutes after talking to him. "He looked better than one would expect."

And foreign ministry officials said he had told them during a debriefing aboard the patrol boat that his full name was Jose Salvador Albarengo.

Companion died

He 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 by eating turtles, birds and fish and drinking turtle blood when there was no rain.

No details have yet emerged about why he began drifting the 12 500km expanse between southern Mexico and the Marshall Islands, or about the fate of a companion he said had died a few months ago.

Marshall Islands immigration chief Damien Jacklick said authorities were still gathering information and the foreign affairs department planned to contact overseas officials for 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 told AFP. "We hope this information will help us track down his family."

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

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.


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