Conditions at Marine Street Beach were as beautiful as they get — crystal clear water, sunny blue skies. Perfect, except for the motorboat speeding toward Jack Enright.

Enright, a San Diego native and videographer who was out that morning taking pictures of the waves, swam out of the way and started recording as the small white boat carrying around eight people "flew up" onto the shore. Enright said he couldn’t remember if the driver even killed the engine.

"It was just chaos, honestly," he told Fox News. "And everyone just jumped and started running."

The group sprinted up a staircase to the street and disappeared into La Jolla. Enright had never seen it firsthand before, but knew he’d just witnessed a human smuggling operation, a near daily occurrence in the waters off California.

Boat speeds onto beach in San Diego

Suspected illegal immigrants ran a speedboat ashore at Marine Street Beach in La Jolla on Jan. 30, 2024. A few days prior, another boat landed on Windansea Beach, less than half a mile to the south. There, suspected migrants were caught on camera jumping into getaway vehicles. (Courtesy Jack Enright)

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People have long sneaked into the U.S. by way of the Pacific Ocean, but over the last three years, California has seen an "exponential increase in maritime smuggling," according to Brandon Tucker, director of Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations in San Diego.

In fiscal year 2020, federal, state and local law enforcement recorded 308 maritime smuggling events in the California area of responsibility, according to CBP. Last fiscal year, they recorded 736, a nearly 140% increase.

Air and Marine Operations uses planes equipped with radar and cameras to patrol above, looking for smugglers. Airborne agents are usually the first to find pangas, small fishing boats frequently used to smuggle migrants or drugs to the U.S., Tucker said. Then his team, as well as their Border Patrol and Coast Guard partners, can coordinate intercepting the boat at sea or on land.

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Tucker doesn't fly as often as he used to, now that he’s director. But his team needed a pilot on March 27 and, within minutes of taking to the sky, radar detected a suspicious vessel. It was a panga, with what looked like more than a dozen migrants on board. 

Border Patrol agents reached the beach just before the boat did. They apprehended at least 10 migrants, plus the driver of a suspected getaway car, Tucker said.

"Normally, that gets us some pretty good intel on the smuggling organization," he said, adding that the drivers — often U.S. citizens — frequently take migrants to stash houses before they move into the nation's interior.

Sometimes, CBP or the Coast Guard are able to stop them. Nearly 8,000 people have been apprehended while trying to enter the U.S. illegally through the Pacific Ocean, its coastlines or its inlets since 2020, data provided by CBP show.

Other times, they find empty boats on the shore. The migrant group on March 27 came ashore in Del Mar, at the exact same beach where, just one month before, Tucker had stumbled upon an abandoned panga while walking his puppy on his morning off.

"The safety aspects of maritime smuggling … keeps me up at night," he said, thinking of the open-hulled pangas floating 15-20 miles off the coast in six-foot seas. "One wave over the bow and that vessel could go down."

SAN DIEGO AREA SEES AN ‘EXPONENTIAL INCREASE IN MARITIME SMUGGLING':

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"It can turn almost immediately from an interdiction into a search and rescue. So our guys have to be ready for anything," he added.

Migrant drowning deaths off the coast of San Diego County spiked from 2020 through 2023, according to a University of California, San Diego study. There were 33 migrant drowning deaths reported in the four-year period, compared to just one in the previous four years. Researchers hypothesized the rise could be linked to the increase in border fence height from 17 feet to 30 feet, prompting more people to try to cross via water.

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"Smugglers have convinced migrants that the maritime environment is an easier route. It's more of a sure thing," Tucker said, adding that people with knee, hip or other mobility issues might prefer a boat. "And in fact, it's not. … Ocean smuggling is so dangerous."

Dangerous for migrants, and for air and maritime agents, he said. Because while the planes' infrared cameras are strong, they can only show people sitting in the open. They can't give agents any idea what's inside a more enclosed boat, like a cuddy cabin or sport fishing boat, Tucker said.

When agents pull up next to the vessel, they could be helping a hypothermia patient or they could "be pulling guns on a drug smuggler," he said. "When you're in close quarters like that, it can be very dynamic and very dangerous."

Infrared shot of boats in water, split with image of agent looking at screens in airplane

CBP's Air and Marine Operations use radar and cameras to detect migrant vessels in the Pacific Ocean near San Diego. Crews in the air coordinate with the Coast Guard and land-based Border Patrol agents to interdict boats. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

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"The real enemy for me is that smuggler," Tucker said. "It doesn't matter to them if it's a pound of cocaine, a pound of meth or a human — it's just a commodity to them. It's just money to them. And the callous nature of their operations put migrants' lives at risk and put my agents' lives at risk."

Many landings happen on popular beaches near homes, so Tucker asked people to call police if they see a panga come ashore.

"Allow us to get out there and try to apprehend these people entering illegally," he said. "But also start the cleanup effort for the panga and potential hazardous materials on board."

Ramiro Vargas contributed to the accompanying video.

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