S1: What I was told is that two fishermen leave Mexico and they go for the weekend, they’re going to catch sharks in a storm, hits them and destroys their motor, and they start drifting west and west and west and then 14 months later, show up near Australia in the Marshall Islands, one alive, one dead. And so at first I thought, no way, nobody can drift that far. So I started to investigate. And it’s
S2: true. Welcome to How To I’m science writer David Epstein. On last week’s show, we learned how to avoid getting yourself into trouble while traipsing through the wilderness, whether that meant steering clear of rattlesnakes, trying to scare off polar bears or avoiding an impending avalanche. Definitely check out that episode if you haven’t heard it yet. But let’s say you’re not doing anything unusually risky. You just wake up, have your coffee, maybe check Twitter and start the workday when suddenly out of the blue, you find yourself caught in a life or death situation.
S1: What then? Yeah, this story is so remarkable that honestly, David, I, I didn’t believe it for a long time.
S2: This is Jonathan Franklin. He’s a journalist who lives in Chile. And while he survived raising seven daughters so far, we’re having him on the show to talk about the survival of another man, a man he wrote about in his book, 438 Days.
S1: And we developed a really strong relationship, so over the course of months and months, he told me the entire tale.
S2: And what was his name?
S1: Salvador Alvarenga was a 33 year old fisherman who was living in Mexico, and he was known as a Tiburon Nero, which means a QAQA.
S2: Alvarenga had been fishing since he was 11 years old. As he got older, he’d take a small skiff and a buddy and go out in the Pacific for two or three days because the area had been fished so heavily, they’d have to get 60 or 70 miles from shore just using a little outboard motor there. They could fill up a bucket with sharks and then sell them for 50 cents a pound when they got back. But on a Saturday in November of 2012, Alvarenga, as usual fishing partner, couldn’t make it. So he just grabbed a day worker from the beach, a 22 year old rookie named Zakhele, who had little seafaring experience.
S1: And the two of them go off for a two day trip and they can see the storm coming. But they’re catching tons of fish and they gamble and they lose because as they come back to shore, the waves are so huge that they flood the engine and the engine dies and they start to drift.
S2: How big a ship is this, Attaran that we’re talking about?
S1: The boat that they’re on is about the size of an SUV. It’s about 20 feet long. It’s tiny boat, no electronics there. They have two safety features on this boat. One’s a Ziploc bag. And that is where you put yourself on that in case you’re close enough to shore. I have coverage. You call and the other is a barrel, because if the boat sinks, you grab on to the barrel, you hang onto the barrel. So that was about the extent of their safety features. And to further hamper any possibility of rescue, the inside of the boat is painted blue and the outside is white. So it perfectly matches the ocean.
S2: Oh, jeez. Did did they have emergency rations, I mean, or water for days or.
S1: They they know they had a turtle shell which they used for a pot and some tomatoes and cilantro for it so they could do sashimi.
S2: When do they realize that they are adrift
S1: within hours of losing their motor, they’re getting destroyed by this huge storm, this massive swells, they’re bobbing up and down. They’ve got this heavy motor in the back and screws up that kind of weight distribution to the boat spinning around. It’s just about flipping all their equipment, which wasn’t much their nets and the fish they had are really messing up their stability. So they throw the fish overboard and then a wave washes away their nets and most of their tools. So they’re pretty much stripped down. And I think they have a machete, one fishhook and an onion.
S2: For days, they bailed the boat by hand, just trying to stay afloat,
S1: screaming at each other, just hours and hours of bailing the boat. Not really for a week until the storm ends and the sea goes calm, they look around and say, wow, where are we?
S2: On today’s episode, How to Survive at Sea, the second in our two part wilderness series, we’ll hear about Alvarenga harrowing journey, the fine line between a pet and a meal and some surprisingly useful hallucinations. Alvarenga experience might seem miles away from our own reality, and it is but his story of surviving 438 days on the Pacific Ocean. He can teach all of us something about navigating our own stormy waters when it feels like we, too, are lost at sea. Stay with us. We’re back with Jonathan Franklin telling us the story of fisherman Jose Salvador Alvarenga, a real life castaway who was stuck on a small boat with his fishing companion, Zakhele. At this point, they’ve been adrift on the ocean for a week. They have presumably no food, no no way to get anywhere. The storm has stopped. So what do they do
S1: at this point? They’ve got some matches and they’ve got their clothes in their back and they’ve got a pole. So they see like a cargo ship on the horizon. You know, they said later it looks like a piece of Lego on the horizon. They tie the shirt to the pole and they lay it on fire. And of course, nothing happens. And 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, of course, 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.
S2: But that was actually unusual for this part of the ocean just north of the equator. It’s one of the rainiest places on earth. There are other lucky break was being in a current that delivered a steady flow of human garbage.
S1: They get saved by the rainwater because they start to find water bottles floating in the ocean. So they start to gather these plastic bottles that we all throw out. And then they found an empty oil drum, which they washed out and plastic one. And so they have 72 little plastic bottles in a big 55 gallon oil drum. And now when it rains, they can save water. And this changes everything.
S2: And they have cover from from the sun at all.
S1: They’ve got no way to make any kind of tent or tarp. So what they do is they take this Styrofoam box, which is where they would store the fish and they would flip it upside down. It’s about the size of a refrigerator. And so all day they live inside this box, all hunched over and crumpled up to the extent that doctors later find they have, you know, slipped vertebrae from being in this weird position so long.
S2: Essentially, Alvarenga, an Zakhele, huddled under that Styrofoam box during the day to avoid getting sunburned and to avoid dehydration, they basically became nocturnal, but they couldn’t live on rainwater alone.
S1: The first month they were eating turtles so they would grab the sea turtles, they would kill them, and then they would collect the blood and they would drink glass after glass of the blood, which turns out that it’s extremely healthy and definitely gives you energy. And they would cook the meat. And then there was little sharks that would follow them. And if the sharks were small enough, like less than maybe two or three feet, he would wait until they were next to the boat and then he would grab them by the back fin and they would eat the shark livers because it turns out that the shark liver is full of all sorts of oils and nutrition. So they were just had this crazy diet of turtles and shark liver.
S2: So he’d pull the sharks into the boat.
S1: Yeah. And then and then they would knock him out with a propeller and sliced it open and dry the meat and the liver was like so dark. So they would take the liver and they would smeared on their arms to try and prevent from being sunburned. And it actually worked. But they said the smell was so horrendous that they said actually we’d rather die of sunburn and then have the smell. It was just it was insufferable, the smell smearing shark liver all over your body.
S2: Weeks go by like this, then months.
S1: Their food supply changes drastically once they get further away from shore. The there’s no more turtles and they’re eating about six to nine birds a day. They took a pole like a stick they had and they tied it from the outboard motor to the top of their box so the birds would land on the Styrofoam cup on this pole. And for the first five minutes, we’d be very observant. But then they would start preening their feathers and then they go to sleep. So Alvarenga would lay very still underneath the pole and he would swing an arm up quickly, grab the bird by the leg and pull it down. But he would break a wing, which sounds totally cruel or is very cruel. So by doing that, he would have 20 or 30 birds alive on the boat that couldn’t fly away. And that became another key to his survival was, you know, planning a long term food supply and being extremely creative.
S2: Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes, and the fishermen invented with every nook and cranny of the skiff,
S1: they dissected the outboard motor and they used every single piece from the outboard motor for some sort of tool. You know, the the plastic casing becomes like a pillow or a water collection device or a baling device. They were able to spear fish by taking long pieces out of the outboard motor, bending them into a hook. Pretty much everything that was on the boat that could become a tool became a tool.
S2: So here’s our first rule. Use what you’ve got, there’s a test in psychology called the alternate uses test. You’re given an object and then you have to come up with as many uses as possible for the thing as you can. With his level of creative resourcefulness, Alvarenga basically past the real life version of that test with flying colors.
S1: He’s a veteran and he’s got this young guy with him and the young guy is freaking out, so Alvarenga starts telling him stories. Alvarenga says, Hey, man, we’re getting close to shore. I’m going to go ashore and get some oranges. Do you want, you know, it’s oranges or you just want tacos? And they got another guy who was half delirious, said, oh, yeah, get me some oranges. So Alvarenga says, OK, he put the oranges in the corner of the boat seven four later. And he creates this alternative reality where he’s describing what actually is going on on shore. And this keeps Zakhele from going completely nuts because he wants to jump overboard and kill himself.
S2: What about the sort of personal conflict side? And was that difficult to to be together that way?
S1: They had huge fights. They had huge fights. They went at it because Alvarenga was a bad ass fisherman who partied his brains out and would make a couple hundred bucks and spend it and had three girlfriends and was living the wildlife. And the younger guy was an evangelical Christian who had been told by his congregation that someone had a dream, that he went to sea and that he 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 because they’ve already told him before he left that somebody had a vision he would die at sea. And Alvarenga had a totally different relationship with religion. He always figured if you never went in the Catholic Church, you didn’t have to abide by its rules. So he never entered a church and he felt that he wasn’t he wasn’t disobeying God because he never promised anything to God. So that one guy, like, looked at church with a total wary eye and the other one was singing in the choir. And so there was quite a conflict here between these two kind of world outlooks.
S2: But Alvarenga imagination helped keep them both sane.
S1: They had tons of downtime and a lot of downtime was at night. So they would just lay on their back. The evangelical gentleman was a fantastic singer, so he would sing. And Alvarenga, who is not a great singer, would also saying, so they do this chorus, one of them would be inside the box, wouldn’t be outside, so that you have the two voices going back and forth. They would play lots of games with the stars. They would look at constellations. And it was funny because basically you’ve got one guy who’s very evangelical and has deep faith. And so he’s seeing he’s seeing all sorts of spiritual images. And the other guy is a party monster who’s placing tequila bottles. And when they saw airplanes go by, they would imagine out loud, what do you think they’re having? And they would just create these amazing feasts about what the people in the airplanes were eating. And so, you know, it’s definitely a sign desperation when you can, you know, fantasize about airplane food.
S2: In addition to his imagination, Alvarenga was bolstered by a deep sense of responsibility.
S1: So Alvarenga develops a really strong sense of caregiving and he’s taking care of this young man and the process. He’s 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.
S2: Here’s our next rule. This might seem counterintuitive if you’re looking out for your own survival, but actually caring for someone else, it can provide an important sense of purpose. And so, despite their very different backgrounds, Alvarenga and Zakhele formed a deep bond about 10 weeks into the journey. The men figured out by tracking full moons that it was around Christmas time. And to keep spirits up, they decided to have a special Christmas dinner, two birds each.
S1: And so Alvarenga, who’s handy with a knife, lays them both. And they, you know, two birds for me, two words for you. And they have their official dinner. And right after he starts eating, kale starts to gag and then bubbles start to come out of his mouth. And he’s obviously getting very sick very quickly. And they can’t figure out what’s going on until they go back to the carcass of one of the birds and they open up the stomach and in the stomach they find a small, poisonous yellow snake. And these snakes are very common in this part of the world, in this part of the Pacific. And so he’s been poisoned because the bird ate the poison snake and they pass the entire night where they think he’s going to die. And Alvarenga nurses him back to health, but never again will he eat with confidence. So he stops eating these tribbles and he shrivels and he won’t eat. And Alvarenga puts the food on toothpicks, which are the vertebrae from the fish they’re eating or the birds are eating. And he tries to baby him and feed him, but actually is terrified of food. And finally, Ezekiel stops eating and he dies in covering his arms. And now he’s really alone.
S2: When we come back, we’ll dive into the toughest part of Alvarenga journey, the awful total and seemingly endless isolation. We’ll be right back. We’re back with Jonathan Franklin, author of the book Four Hundred and Thirty Eight Days and just a heads up, this next part of the story contains some fairly gruesome descriptions and talk about suicide. When we left Alvarenga, he was devastated. His young companion, Zakhele, had just died after 10 weeks lost at sea.
S1: So instead of dumping the body, he sits the body up and for about a week he talks to the body, he pretends like his body’s alive, wakes up in the morning and said, hey, man, what’s it how is breakfast? What’s going on? And then he starts to imagine that the corpse is speaking back to him. And so he imagines the corpse is saying, oh, death is beautiful, please come visit me in death. And Alvarenga will say, I don’t want to die. You crazy, I’m not going to die. So he has these kind of hallucinatory conversations with the corpse over the course of a week. And then he kind of snaps out of it and decides that he needs to do a burial at sea. So he strips the clothes off his body because they’re useful and he just lowers his body into the ocean at night and lets him go.
S2: As awful as it was losing Zakhele, it did mean that Alvarenga only needed half as much food and water.
S1: But actually, what he does is he starts using the caretaking motivation on himself, so the exact same tools that he used to keep his body alive, he now flips around and he tells himself stories aloud. So he’ll imagine that he’s walking down the beach and he’s seeing some some girl he’s always been flirting with or he imagines going to his favorite restaurant and ordering his favorite dish. He does this for hours every day. And it’s this alternative reality that is so realistic that keeps him alive. And he’ll say, he said, Jonathan, the best meals of my life were those imaginary meals I had at sea. He said the best sex I read in my life was imaginary sex I had out in the middle of the ocean.
S2: Here’s another rule, create an alternate reality might sound odd, but if you want to survive a desperate circumstance with no finish line in sight, you might have to cultivate the will to live. Now, thankfully, we can usually take that for granted in normal life. But you don’t have Netflix out in the middle of the ocean. So fantasizing about other worlds that can distract you from your difficult reality can give you hope for the life you could someday have again. And Alvarenga could get pretty creative to pass the time.
S1: So what he does is he entertains himself, so he he’s catching a few puffer fish the size of a tennis ball. So what he does is he puts like eight birds on one side of the boat and eight on another, and he puts a puffer fish in the middle. And because the puffer fish looks like it’s food, the birds are pecking it and moves and rolls a little bit. So he imagines that it’s actually a soccer match and that it’s Mexico, his team against Brazil, their mortal enemies. So he spends hours just narrating these, you know, crazy kind of bird soccer games and pretending that Mexico always trounces Brazil in these games, like Brazil gets whomped every time. And he notices that one of the birds is kind of different from the others. And so he adopts this and he actually starts to take this bird into his little shelter and he learns to whistle and imitate the sounds and he feeds the bird special meals. So he has a pet. And the pet bird who he names Pancho, becomes a really important part of his survival, because with Pancho, he’s not alone. You know, he can whistle and punch or whistle back. He’s got some sort of communication going on in the bird sleeps with him and and he feeds the bird, you know, out of a little cup that he’s got. Wow.
S2: And did Poncho survive the rest of the journey?
S1: Well, what happens is that Alvarenga at one point is getting hungry and hungrier because he’s in a place where it’s just not that many birds. You know, he’s only got six birds left and four finally runs out of birds. And he looks at Poncho. And it’s a bunch of you know, we’ve got another couple of days and after another couple of days, he still has enough food. So he said at night you covered, you know, covered Poncho’s head and he broke Poncho’s neck and then he ate Poncho.
S2: Wow. How long into the journey was that?
S1: This is definitely the second half of the journey. But when he loses Poncho, he’s really depressed as well. This is a bird he loved and then he decides he’s actually got to eat his his pinkie because he’s so hungry that he’s got nothing to eat. And so he first he eats his beard. He he chops off his beard and then he chops it up into little pieces and then eats all his fingernails and then he’s eating would pop like his shaving pieces of wood off the boat in the wood pulp, which is not really helping. So he gets a whole plane was going to chop off his pinkie, but he actually freaks out not because he might be eating his pinkie, but he’s not totally sure he can staunch the blood flow. So he said it was actually it was fear of the bleeding to death, not fear of eating his own pinkie. Wow.
S2: It was about this time that his boat gets pulled into a gigantic, gentle whirlpool, a circular current teeming with life, so suddenly there’s plenty to eat. But more than that, it was Alvarenga sense of humor that got him to his most desperate moments.
S1: He would spend hours talking to the ocean and he would say, poor ocean, you must be tired, you’ve been carrying me for thousands of miles. Why don’t you just throw me on a beach or something like, you know, get rid of me. And to the birds, he would lecture the birds. The birds would land on his Styrofoam and he would say, Birds, man, if I were you, I would not go so far from shore. And I later interviewed survival psychologists who work closely with the British Navy. And they said that when they interview survivors of a lifeboat, you know, there’s 10 people in the lifeboat and only four live. One of the key factors is their sense of humor. And those who are able to keep a sense of humor often stay alive. And he actually said they don’t have a deficit in a sense of humor can be fatal. If you don’t laugh, you might die.
S2: And so what would you do if you were, let’s say you were lost at sea tomorrow? What would you most keep in mind for everything you’ve learned in the hope of surviving yourself?
S1: First of all, I would say that the mental health is way more important than the physical health. So I would keep myself busy doing a million different things. You know, if I had a piece of rope, I would learn to tie a thousand different kinds of knots. If I was staring at the sky, I would memorize a thousand constellations. Do not like dwell. If you dwell, you’re gone.
S2: But Jonathan said actually there was one thing that Alvarenga did dwell on and that was key to his survival.
S1: He’d been a terrible father. He had totally blown off his daughter, who is now 12 and had always promised himself he would go back and be a good dad. And he said over and over again, you know, I have to come back. I want to give her her quinceañera. And so he couldn’t bear the thought of dying without resolving his promise to himself into his daughter to come back and be a more present dad.
S2: But that strong resolve, it didn’t mean there weren’t moments he considered giving up. One day, another ship passed right by his boat
S1: and there was so close that he thought it was going to get rammed. And he at this point, his clothes are pretty ragged, his beard is very ragged, and he’s jumping up and down. And there were three men fishing off the back of the boat. And he said they just waved at him and kept going, oh, my God.
S2: At one point, Jonathan says Alvarenga actually got so depressed that he started plotting how to kill himself.
S1: So he’s got two ways to kill himself. Either you can chum the water and get tons of sharks there and then jump in, or he can sharpen one of the spears coming out of the the remnants of the outboard motor and then jump up and see if it can pierce his heart instantly on one of these spears. So he’s going back and forth and he can’t do it because of his daughter. Again, he can’t leave his daughter with this image of a wall dad. So he doesn’t kill himself, but he gets pretty close.
S2: And then 13 and a half months into his journey, Alvarenga started to notice that things were changing.
S1: The bird life has changed. The fish swimming underneath him, it smells organic, he starts to smell like, you know, the smell of dirt, and then he sees a piece of land and he’s headed right towards it. He washes ashore on deserted island, which is the last thing he could have positive hit if he missed that. It was like another 12 miles to Japan. I mean, he was gone and no way he was going to make it.
S2: The ocean finally decided it was tired of carrying Alvarenga and threw him up on one of the southernmost Marshall Islands, a speck in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Go ahead, Google map the Marshall Islands. See how many times you have to zoom in to see if there’s even anything there.
S1: He’s got his knife and he just crawls up on the shore and he just he just he said he just grabbed a handful of sand and he he couldn’t really walk because his legs were so weak. So he pulls himself up on the beach and he falls asleep. And then you hear something that changes his life forever. He hears a rooster. And when he hears the rooster, he knows humans are near. He starts kind of crawling across this little island, which is tiny is probably not as as a couple of tennis courts. And he sees a shack and a couple from the Marshall Islands come out and they’re the only two inhabitants of this other island, which is right next door. And they see this animal climbing down the beach and they don’t even think it’s human. And then the wife says, well, wait, they said, look, it’s a person. And Alvarenga gets down on his hands and knees and puts his hands together, like praying for help. So they carry him over to their house and they start cooking and he eats and eats. They’re making a pancake.
S2: After he spends a few days recovering, they reach out to the local U.S. ambassador who gets in touch with Mexico.
S1: Then the Mexicans say, yes, we lost a boat with that name, you know, a year and a half ago. Yes, we that’s, you know, because there’s you can read like the serial number of the name on the boat. And so that’s how there’s first indications that, you know, oh, my God, this could actually be true.
S2: Wow, that’s incredible. That’s incredible. And what was his homecoming like? I mean, did he go did he, in fact, go back and raise his daughter?
S1: His initial homecoming was terrible because the press swarms him because it’s a remarkable story and he wants nothing to do with the press. He doesn’t want to talk to anybody, wants to forget this thing. He’s like he hasn’t seen humans in months. He’s terrified. So but when he actually makes it home and the press kind of dies off, the daughter was totally shocked because she she had been always told that the sharks had eaten daddy. So they had daddy come back was a big deal.
S2: Here’s our final rule. When you’re in a desperate situation, remember your loved ones, not just how much you care about them, but what you still owe them and yourself. What relationships do you want to strengthen? What more do you want to do with your life? Facing down death can be a useful reset for thinking about what kind of life you want to live. Have you stayed in touch with him? Do you know what his life is like now?
S1: He called me yesterday.
S2: Oh wow. How is it? How’s he doing?
S1: He’s doing good. We’re actually making a movie now. We’re pretty advanced and making a making a movie about about this tale. And there’s a really, really positive message here, because when I asked Alvarenga early on, I was like, why do you wanna do a book? And he said he said, look, I could have killed myself. I had no food. I was burning in the sun. I was alone. You know, if I can survive, so can you. And if one person doesn’t kill themselves because they read four hundred and thirty eight days, then that’s success for me.
S2: So this is the end of our special two part series on Surviving in the Wild. We’ve encountered venomous snakes, avalanches, polar bears and now the largest ocean on earth. The ancient stoic philosophers made Memento Mori or reminding oneself about death, a central part of living. Well, and I don’t want to be morbid about it, but our guests, while learning how to stay alive in the wild, they learned a thing or two about how to live when not in the wild. And so did I. And I hope you did, too. Thank you to Jonathan Franklin for sharing Alvarenga story. Be sure to look for his book Four hundred and thirty eight days and someday soon the movie version. And since we talked about depression and thoughts of suicide, we wanted to know if you or anyone you know are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide or need help immediately. You can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline any time and one 800 273 talk. Or you can find help at Suicide Prevention Lifeline dot org. Do you have a question about how to get through a difficult time? Send us a note at how to its outcome or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. How TOS executive producers Derek John, Rachel Allen and Rosemarie Bellson produced the show. Our theme music is by Hannis Brown, remixed by Merritt Jacob. Our technical director, Charles Duhigg is not lost at sea. We promise he’s just still surfing. I’m David Epstein.
S3: See you next time.