At 33, José Salvador Alvarenga had been fishing for sharks in Mexico for decades. He’d normally take a small skiff and a buddy and go out on the Pacific Ocean for two to three days, catching sharks and then returning to land to sell them for 50 cents a pound. On a Saturday in November of 2012, Alvarenga’s usual fishing partner couldn’t make it, so he grabbed a day worker from the beach, a 22-year-old rookie named Ezequiel who had little seafaring experience. Neither man could have known what would happen next: They’d be lost at sea for more than a year. On a recent episode of How To!, journalist Jonathan Franklin, author of 438 Days, shared Alvarenga’s story, a tale of survival that is both harrowing and yet surprisingly hopeful. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
David Epstein: How did you first hear about this story?
Jonathan Franklin: This story is so remarkable that honestly, I didn’t believe it for a long time. Over the course of months Alvarenga and I developed a really strong relationship and he told me the entire tale. So in November of 2012, Alvarenga and Ezequiel go off for a two-day trip. They see a storm coming but they are catching tons of fish, so they gamble. They lose because as they come back to shore, the waves are so huge that they flood the engine. The engine dies and they start to drift.
Within hours of losing their motor, they’re getting destroyed by this huge storm. There are massive swells so they’re bobbing up and down. They’ve got this heavy motor in the back, which screws up the weight distribution so the boat is spinning around, flipping out all their equipment—their nets and the fish they had. They throw the fish overboard and waves wash away their nets and most of their tools. The boat that they’re on is about the size of an SUV with no electronics. They have two safety features: One is a Ziploc bag to put your cell phone in case you’re close enough to shore to have coverage and the other is a barrel because if the boat sinks, you grab onto the barrel. That was the extent of their safety features. At this point, they’re bailing out the boat with their hands, screaming at each other—hours and hours of bailing out the boat. It’s not for a week until the storm ends and the sea goes calm. They look around and say, Wow, where are we? And to further hamper any possibility of rescue, the inside of the boat is painted blue and the other side is white, so it perfectly matches the ocean.
Wow. So they have presumably no food, no way to get anywhere. The storm has stopped. So what do they do?
Well, they’ve also got some matches, their clothes on their backs, and some sort of stick. So they see a cargo ship on the horizon—Alvarenga later said it looked like a Lego piece on the horizon—and they tie a shirt to the stick and light it on fire. Nothing happens. They have a mirror for shaving that’s about the size of a baseball. They try and signal the ship with that little mirror, which does nothing. And then they have about a week where it doesn’t rain and they just about die of thirst. Alvarenga said his tongue got so big he couldn’t even talk. But they get saved by the rainwater because they start to find water bottles and an empty oil drum floating in the ocean so they start to gather these plastic bottles. They have 72 little plastic bottles and a 55-gallon oil drum. Now when it rains, they can save water and this changes everything.
The first month they were eating turtles because they were close to shore and there were lots of sea turtles. They would grab the sea turtles, kill them, and then collect the blood and drink glass after glass of the blood, which turns out is extremely healthy and gives you energy. And then they would cook the meat. There were also little sharks that would follow them and if the sharks were small enough, less than maybe two or three feet, Alvarenga would wait until they were next to the boat and grab them by the back fin. They would eat the shark livers because it turns out that the shark liver is full of all sorts of oils and nutrition. They just had this crazy diet of turtles and shark liver. But the food supply changes drastically once they get further away from shore. There’s no more turtles so they’re eating about six to nine birds a day. Alvarenga took a stick they had and tied so that the birds would land on it, and for the first five minutes would be very observant, but then they would start preening their feathers and go to sleep. Alvarenga would lay very still underneath the stick and then he would swing an arm up quickly, grab the bird by the leg, and pull it down. He would break a wing, which sounds totally cruel and probably is very cruel, but by doing that, he would have 20 or 30 birds alive on the boat that couldn’t fly away. That became a key to his survival—planning a long term food supply and being extremely creative.
Do they have any cover from the sun?
They’ve got no way to make a tent or tarp, so what they do is they take this Styrofoam box, which is where they would store the fish, and flip it upside down. It’s about the size of a refrigerator and all day they both live inside this box, hunched over and crumpled up to the extent that doctors later find they have slipped vertebrae from being in these weird positions for so long.
Was it difficult for the two men to be together all the time?
They had huge fights. They went at it because Alvarenga was a badass fisherman who partied his brains out and would make a couple hundred bucks and spend it. He had three girlfriends and was living the wild life. But the younger guy, Ezequiel, was an evangelical Christian, who had been told by his congregation that someone had a dream that he went to sea and would die in the ocean very soon. So he is freaking out. He’s sure that it’s God’s will that he’s going to die. Alvarenga had a totally different relationship with religion. He always figured that if you never went into a Catholic Church you didn’t have to abide by its rules. So he never entered a church and he felt that he wasn’t disobeying God because he never promised anything to God. So there was quite a conflict here between these two world outlooks.
But Alvarenga is a veteran. He’s got this young guy with him who is freaking out so Alvarenga starts telling him stories. He says, “Hey, man, we’re getting close to shore. I’m going to go ashore and get some oranges. Do you want oranges or tacos?” The guy is half-delirious: “Oh, yeah, get me some oranges.” So Alvarenga says, “OK, I put the oranges in our big corner of the boat to save them for later.” He creates an alternate reality where he’s describing what actually is going on on shore and this keeps Ezequiel from going completely nuts because he wants to jump overboard and kill himself.
They must have had tons of downtime.
Yes. They would just lay on their backs. The evangelical gentleman was a fantastic singer, so he would sing. And Alvarenga, who was not a great singer, would also sing. They would do this chorus—one of them would be inside the box, one would be outside—so that you have the two voices going back and forth. They would play lots of games with the stars and look at constellations. It was funny because basically the guy who has deep faith was seeing all sorts of spiritual images and the other guy who is a party monster was probably seeing tequila bottles. When they saw airplanes go by, they would imagine out loud, “What do you think they’re having?” They would create these amazing feasts imagining that the people in the airplanes were eating. Alvarenga would imagine that he’s walking down the beach and seeing some girl he’s always been flirting with—it’s this alternative reality that keeps him alive. And he said, “Jonathan, the best meals of my life were those imaginary meals I had at sea. The best sex I had in my life was the imaginary sex.”
Alvarenga is taking care of this young man and develops a really strong sense of caregiving. In the process, he’s reinforcing his inner strength because throughout history, when you look at who survives and who dies, people who have to care for others are in a much better psychological position. When you have a deeper mission, when you have a broader responsibility, it proves to be one of the most powerful tools to motivate your own day-to-day existence.
But then about six to 10 weeks into the journey, the men are trying to figure out if it’s Christmas by the full moons. They decide to have a Christmas dinner of two birds each. Alvarenga filets them both and right after he starts eating, Ezequiel starts to gag. Bubbles start to come out of his mouth and he’s obviously getting very sick, very quickly. They can’t figure out what’s going on until they go back to the carcass of one of the birds and in the stomach find a small, poisonous yellow snake. Ezequiel has been poisoned because the bird ate the poisonous snake. They pass an entire night where they think he’s going to die. Alvarenga nurses him back to health, but never again will he eat with confidence. He stops eating and he shrivels. He won’t eat—Alvarenga puts food on toothpicks, which are the vertebrae from the fish they’re eating, and he tries to baby him and feed him. But Ezequiel is terrified of food and finally stops eating and he dies in Alvarenga’s arms. Now Alvarenga is really alone.
So what happens next?
This is roughly 10 weeks into the journey. Alvaregna notices that one of the birds is different from the others. He adopts this bird, takes him into his little shelter, and feeds him special meals—so he has a pet bird who he names Pancho. This bird becomes a really important part of Alvarenga’s survival because with Pancho, he’s not alone.
And did Pancho survive the rest of the journey?
Well, what happens is that Alvarenga is getting hungrier because he’s in a place where there are not that many birds and fish. He’s only got six birds left, then four, and finally he runs out of birds. And so he looks at Pancho….
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To find out what happens next and how Alvarenga ultimately survived more than 14 months at sea, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! wherever you get your podcasts.
And make sure to check out “How To Survive in the Wild Part 1,” about rattlesnake bites and polar bear attacks: