Editor's note: This corrects the name of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Agent Michael Jimenez' title.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection is investigating a Tuesday-morning incident in which eight to 10 people reportedly came ashore at Crystal Cove State Park in a small boat, then shed their life jackets and some clothes as they scattered about the area. As of late Tuesday afternoon, authorities still were looking for these people.
Border patrol officials said the group was aboard a panga boat, a type of open-hulled Mexican fishing boat frequently used in coastal smuggling.
About 7 a.m., a visitor at Moro Beach, one of the beaches at Crystal Cove, called police to report the incident. The person was not able to identify the ethnicity of anyone in the group, saying only that they pulled ashore and ran in several different directions.
Immigration authorities received a report of a second boat seen motoring back southward from the beach minutes after the first boat was found on the sand, said Border Protection spokesman Agent Michael Jimenez.
An Orange County Sheriff Harbor Patrol boat and helicopter converged on the area but didn't find anyone, said Sheriff's Department Lt. Jim England.
The incident is part of a new trend authorities are seeing in human and drug smuggling from Mexico and points farther south, said Lauren Mack, of San Diego County's Immigration and Customs Enforcement office.
This is the third suspected smuggling incident this year to stretch northward into Orange County, she said.
In the last two to three years, as land-based border enforcement has increased, smugglers have headed out to sea with greater frequency. When smuggling was increasingly seasonal the boats would blend in with summer vacationers or recreational sailors, but now their methods are more bold and dangerous, Mack said.
Smugglers load the panga boats with 25 to 30 people and rely only on their global positioning systems to navigate, not even using lights on the boat to help with sailing in the dark, Mack said. They target beaches in North San Diego County, and apparently South Orange County, because they're so close to the 5 Freeway, where a waiting car can quickly whisk away the immigrants, authorities said.
ICE in San Diego has seen a three-fold increase in similar smuggling incidents in the first half of fiscal year 2010 compared with the same period in 2008, said Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for ICE's Western region.
Numbers on Orange County incidents were not immediately available.