El Salvador Foreign Minister Jaime Miranda talks with Jose Salvador Alvarenga as the latter arrives at Comalapa airport in San Luis Talpa on the outskirts of San Salvador on Feb 11, 2014. Alvarenga, the fisherman from El Salvador who says he spent more than a year adrift in the Pacific Ocean, arrived home and was barely able to speak, sobbing as curious folk craned for a glimpse of the famous castaway. – Reuters
The co-author of Essentials Of Sea Survival says the story of fisherman Jose Salvador Alvarenga is physiologically feasible.
FOR all the scepticism cast at the idea that Jose Salvador Alvarenga survived for more than a year drifting on a small boat in the Pacific, such a feat is physiologically feasible, especially for a fisherman experienced in catching his own food, according to an expert on survival at sea.
“I have no idea whether he did this or not, but it’s not impossible,” said Mike Tipton, professor of physiology at Portsmouth University, United Kingdom, and co-author of the book Essentials of Sea Survival. “The fact that he had a maritime background, and knows how to be at sea and survive, has got to be an enormous behavioural advantage.”
While the recommended survival rations for those on life rafts is a litre of water and 1,000 calories of food a day, previous survival stories show it is possible to exist on significantly less.
A study of those stranded on life rafts during the Second World War, cited in Tipton’s book, found that even a daily water ration of slightly over 200ml greatly increased survival chances.
Alvarenga has not explained how he maintained his fluid intake, but Tipton said this could be done. “Absolutely, it’s possible, if everything goes in your favour and you get periodic supplies of fresh water that you can store, or you’re smart enough to use the condensation that appears on the inside of canopies and things like that. It can happen, but it’s remarkable if it did.”
Tipton’s book lists a series of innovative, if grisly ways to obtain fluids, including sucking the moisture from the spinal columns of fish and drinking the blood of turtles, the latter being something Alvarenga says he did.
A 20kg turtle can provide about a litre of blood – a substance described as tasting like “the elixir of life” by a previous castaway, Dougal Robertson, a Scottish man who survived 38 days adrift with his young family after their schooner was sunk by whales in the Pacific.
Tipton said turtles were relatively easy to catch and could be a lifesaver. “There’s also quite a good layer of fat on a turtle, just under the shell. That’s quite useful. You want to try and preserve your proteins, they’re the building blocks of life.”
Turtle fat is particularly useful because protein – the main food group available for those adrift, whether through birds or fish – can prove counter-productive as it requires a good amount of fluids for the body to process.
Another unlikely luxury are fish eyes, which are a useful source of liquid and of another vital nutrient.
Maurice and Maralyn Bailey, a British couple who survived 117 days on a rubber life raft in the Pacific in 1973, did not initially understand why they sought them.
Tipton said: “They found they started to crave fish eyes, which is not something one would normally do. It wasn’t until after the voyage they realised these are quite rich in vitamin C, which is something you get depleted in when you’re adrift, and can, of course, cause scurvy.”
Aside from the well-known advice to not drink seawater – the book notes that unlikely survival methods involving seawater enemas also did not prove useful – Tipton said those adrift should resist the temptation to drink anything at all on the first day, not least because much of this fluid would be lost in urine.
“Once you get past day one or day two, the body will switch into conservation mode. As long as you’re not swimming about to catch fish or doing lots of exercise, then your metabolism will slow right down. You’ll go to a resting metabolic rate, which will require 1,000 to 1,500 calories a day. We know from things like the hunger strikers in the 70s and 80s, just how long the body can survive with very little going into it.”
Alvarenga’s biggest advantage might simply have been his years of experience at sea.
Tipton said: “One of the things we’ve learned over the centuries is that people who are regular seafarers are behaviourally adapted to that environment. It’s even down to little things. If you or I were stuck in that situation, we’d probably be seasick for the first week, and that would be sufficient to finish us in itself – not only because it’s a fairly significant source of dehydration, through vomiting, but also because it destroys your morale.” – Guardian News & Media