Woman adrift on boat for a week defended husband's body from vultures

Missing woman spent a week adrift with her husband’s corpse: Devoted wife, 68, defended her dead partner’s body from vultures after he suffered a fatal heart attack on nightmare fishing trip in the Amazon

  • Missing woman fought off vultures, stuck adrift on boat with husband’s body
  • Husband suffered a heart attack on the first day of their first fishing trip together 

A woman in Brazil survived a week adrift on a boat with her husband’s body, fighting off vultures and living on raw fish. 

Maria das Graças Mota Bernardo, 68, was on her first fishing trip down the Rio Negro with her husband, José Nilson de Souza Bernardo, when he suffered a heart attack and died at the start of their excursion on 29 March.

When the boat’s motor broke, Maria was left to paddle her way to safety for days through a sea of killer caimans – alligator-like creatures that can grow up to 4ft long.

Their daughter, Cristiane, told reporters: ‘After dinner, [José] went to lie down in the hammock, but the rope snapped and he was startled. He got up and hit his knee.

‘He sat down again and started fanning himself, telling my mother that he was feeling hot. She said he then stood up, screamed, and fell over. She caught him, lifted his head, and he took his last breath.’

Maria das Graças Mota Bernardo (left) is pictured with her husband José Nilson de Souza Bernardo, who died from a heart attack while during a fishing trip in 

‘They planned this trip for months. He wanted her to take lots of pictures. It was going to be their moment,’ Cristiane said of her parents who set out on a fishing trip on 28 March

Maria told family she had tied the canoe to the tree and went to seek help in the other boat. She then found the engine would not turn back on.

Cristiane said: ‘She went to the bow and started paddling. She spent all those days paddling.’

She said she feared falling in, surrounded by caimans, but also because she could not swim. 

On the third day, a man passed by in a rabeta, a canoe with a motor. When Maria called for help, the man ‘just kept going’, leaving her stranded, paddling for days on end without proper food.

Cristiane said her mother spent the first days eating raw fish and flour they had on the boat.

She added: ‘One day she only drank water. On another day, she only ate flour with water and drank pure lemon juice.’

While adrift on the river, Maria banged pots and pans and screamed for help from the top of her lungs.

According to Maria’s daughter, she ‘screamed and screamed and no one answered’.

She said Maria decided to move to the other side of the boat and covered her airways with a cloth when her husband’s body started to decompose.

Cristiane stated: ‘She couldn’t sleep anymore. All her strength went into bringing his body home, for the family to give him a dignified burial.’

The elderly woman had to defend her husband’s body from the harsh Amazonian elements, including blistering sunshine, tropical storms, and even predatory animals.

Cristiane said: ‘My mum said vultures started to perch on top of the vessel.

‘She hit them and they screamed. She took the tarp off the top of the awning and put it over the body because bees and mosquitoes were already sitting on his corpse.’

After being rescued and receiving medical treatment, Maria is still struggling to come to terms with her ordeal. She was released from the hospital on 5 April.

Cristiane said: ‘She is shaken and weak. She can’t sleep.’

Maria was found by the navy in Iranduba, just south of Manaus, 100 miles from where the couple set off a week prior

Maria and José, also 68, set off on 28 March. They had a fishing boat and a smaller canoe for exploring flooded forests. A search operation was launched when they failed to arrive home. 

Worried family members alerted the authorities when they discovered the couple’s canoe tied to a tree.

Rotting fish was found inside and a net was still stretched out in the water.

On 4 April, the Brazilian Navy found the couple’s vessel adrift in Iranduba, about 100 miles (161 km) from their departure point, a week after they set off.

A Navy helicopter rescued Maria from the scene and officials administered first aid and support for the bereaved woman.

She was then flown to Manaus for medical checks.

The Amazonas State health department said Maria is receiving clinical and psychological care at this time.

Meanwhile, the Brazilian Navy confirmed that an investigation is underway.

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