Searchers were looking for victims of what the authorities said was a human smuggling operation. They recovered bodies, life jackets and fuel barrels.
At least eight people died after the small boats they were in capsized near a San Diego beach, the authorities said on Sunday, identifying it as a human-smuggling operation gone awry.
Capt. James Spitler, sector commander of the U.S. Coast Guard in San Diego, said that one boat carrying approximately eight people made it ashore, while the other, carrying an estimated 15 people, overturned in the surf.
James Gartland, the head of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department’s lifeguard division, called it “one of the worst maritime smuggling tragedies” in recent years.
“Often these boats are poorly maintained and overloaded,” Mr. Gartland said.
San Diego Fire-Rescue Department lifeguards responded to a 911 call around 11:30 p.m. on Saturday, according to the department spokeswoman, Monica Muñoz.
The caller, a woman speaking Spanish, said she and other passengers of a panga boat, a small fishing vessel, had reached the shores of Black’s Beach, a secluded strip of sand beneath the bluffs of Torrey Pines on the Pacific Ocean.
The caller said that another panga boat had capsized.
By the time lifeguards arrived, their attempts to reach the beach were hampered by high tide and a heavy fog. They found both boats were capsized and inside the shore line. No survivors were found.
Instead, lifeguards found “lifeless bodies and two overturned pangas spread over an area of about 400 yards,” Ms. Muñoz said. “Several life jackets and fuel barrels were also found.”
“Lifeguards pulled victims from knee-deep water and from the waterline up the beach to dry sand,” she added.
Mr. Gartland said he could not confirm any demographic details of the dead or surviving passengers. It was not immediately clear how many people officials believed remain unaccounted for. It was also unclear from where the boats came.
Search efforts were continuing on Sunday morning.
A series of sandbars and dangerous rip currents make the water around Black’s Beach particularly treacherous, the authorities said.
Rescuers have responded to dozens of incidents this year involving swimmers, surfers and mariners. At least 23 people have died in smuggling cases in Southern California since 2021, Captain Spitler said.
“Sadly, this tragedy continues and has been happening for quite some time,” he said.
“This is not necessarily people trying to find a better life,” he added. “This is part of a transnational criminal organization network to smuggle people into the United States.”