Eight dead after two boats possibly carrying migrants overturn off Black’s Beach

One of two pangas that are believed to have been used to smuggle migrants and overturned in the ocean off Black’s Beach
Surfers walk past one of two pangas that are believed to have been used to smuggle migrants and overturned in the ocean off Black’s Beach. At least eight people died.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Officials call it ‘one of the most deadly maritime events in San Diego’s history.’


Eight people were killed when two boats possibly carrying migrants overturned in the ocean off Black’s Beach in La Jolla late March 11 in what officials called one of the deadliest maritime events in San Diego history.

Officials were alerted to the crash when a Spanish-speaking woman called 911 around 11:30 p.m. asking for help. She reported that she had come from Mexico via one of two boats that were near Black’s Beach, San Diego police Officer Sarah Foster said. The woman said one boat had eight people on board and a second was carrying eight to 15 people.

She told dispatchers that the one she was on had made it to shore while the other had capsized and people were in the water.

Emergency crews found that both boats had capsized, said San Diego Fire-Rescue Department Lifeguard Chief James Gartland.

Crews did not find any survivors, so it’s possible there are additional victims or that some of the people made it to shore and fled before emergency workers arrived, officials said. Rescuers did not encounter the woman who called 911.

Emergency workers arrive after two boats crashed at Black's Beach late March 11. Authorities say at least eight people died.

Eric Lavergne, special operations supervisor for the U.S. Border Patrol’s San Diego sector, said he believed it was “one of the most deadly maritime events in San Diego’s history,” though he couldn’t say for sure if it was the deadliest.

Authorities continued search and recovery efforts March 12.

A lifeguard dispatcher used GPS coordinates from the 911 caller’s cellphone to pinpoint the location in the water off Black Gold Road, south of Torrey Pines Gliderport, Fire-Rescue officials said. Several factors hampered search efforts, including thick fog and high tides.

Map of Black's Beach
(Bing Maps and La Jolla Light)

Lifeguards found the eight victims on the beach and in the water. All eight were adults, Gartland said, but officials did not know, or did not disclose, their nationalities or other details about them. Footage from OnScene.TV appeared to show men and women among the dead.

Authorities turned over the victims to the San Diego County medical examiner’s office to be identified.

“The Consulate General of Mexico in San Diego laments the maritime tragedy that occurred ... near La Jolla,” consulate officials said in a statement.

Seven of the eight people who died are presumed to be citizens of Mexico, “based on the identifications that some of them carried,” Alberto Lozano, a spokesman for the consulate, stated March 13.

San Diego City Councilman Joe LaCava, whose District 1 includes La Jolla, declined to comment about the disaster.

U.S. Rep. Scott Peters (D-La Jolla), whose 50th District includes the area, could not be reached for comment.

Gartland said the waves at the time of the crash were about three feet but that the area is “very hazardous” even in good conditions.

“It has a series of sandbars and in-shore rip currents, so you can think that you could land in some sand or get to waist-high, knee-high water and think you’re safe and able to exit the water, but there’s long in-shore holes,” Gartland said. “So if you step into those holes, those rip currents will pull you along the shore and then back out to sea.”

Lifeguards were unable to directly access the beach because of the high tide and ended up wading north through knee- to waist-deep water, officials said.

“After a couple hundred yards, lifeguards on the beach reached dry sand and then began to find lifeless bodies and two overturned pangas spread over an area of about 400 yards,” a statement from the Fire-Rescue Department said. “Several life jackets and fuel barrels were also found.”

A Coast Guard helicopter was the only aircraft able to make it to the area due to the fog and other weather conditions. Capt. James Spitler, commander of the Coast Guard’s San Diego sector, said the members of the flight crew could see only about 50 yards around them.

“The lowest they could get was down to about 100 feet,” Spitler said. “They couldn’t see the water very well, even with night-vision goggles. So they did a few legs of the search pattern and determined that the risk exceeded their ability to do a search effectively, so they returned to base.”

Capt. James Spitler speaks to reporters outside San Diego lifeguard headquarters March 12.
Capt. James Spitler, commander of the Coast Guard’s San Diego sector, speaks to reporters outside San Diego lifeguard headquarters March 12 after eight people died in a boat crash off Black’s Beach in La Jolla the night before.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Gartland said it was “pitch black” in the area due to the fog and the remote location at the bottom of tall bluffs.

“[There is] no lighting from the coast down there,” he said. “So without navigation lights or a plan to navigate well, it’s just a difficult landing and extrication.”

Spitler said smugglers, who often are sailing overloaded and poorly maintained boats, frequently choose conditions like those the night of March 11 because the poor visibility helps them avoid detection.

“It’s very difficult for anybody to operate in those conditions,” Spitler said. “They were likely one of the very few mariners out there at sea.”

Spitler told reporters there has been a 771 percent increase in human trafficking in the Southern California coastal region since 2017.

“Since 2021, we’ve had 23 lives lost at sea,” he said, though he added that the true tally is likely higher since some deaths may go unreported.

The Black’s Beach deaths come less than two years after three migrants were killed and dozens of others were injured when their 40-foot boat crashed into a reef and broke apart in May 2021 off Point Loma.

That same month, one person died and 10 others had to be rescued from the water after a small boat ran into trouble off La Jolla and eventually capsized near the Children’s Pool.

Last November, two people drowned when their panga overturned in the water off Imperial Beach. And in April, a man died and three others were injured when their panga overturned near Ocean Beach.

Pangas are simple metal or wooden vessels that have outboard motors and are commonly used for smuggling. Though they can vary a bit in size and design, they typically lie low in the water and feature a few benches to sit on.

In recent years, authorities have increasingly encountered pangas crossing into U.S. waters after launching from Baja California. Sometimes authorities find the vessels abandoned on shore or intercept them at sea.

Spitler said the message he hopes gets through to immigrants considering crossing the border by sea is that “every time they get into a panga to come northbound, their lives are at risk.”

Carlos González Gutiérrez, the consul general of Mexico in San Diego, echoed that warning.

“People planning to cross the border into the United States, either by land or sea, should know that human smugglers will take advantage of their need in order to obtain illicit money, distorting reality, creating false expectations and exposing them to high-risk conditions where they may lose their lives,” he said in a statement.

But Lilian Serrano, director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, said U.S. enforcement policies are the cause of such tragedies.

“This is another example of how deterrence policies endanger lives,” Serrano said. “Policy makers attempt to make crossing the border harder and sell the idea that it will stop migrants. But the reality is it has pushed people in desperate situations to cross through much more dangerous routes — either the desert, the ocean or climbing walls.”

In June 2021, Border Patrol officials responded to the surge in maritime smuggling incidents by reviving a dormant marine unit that had been dissolved in 2007 when the Department of Homeland Security’s Air and Marine Operations had taken over patrolling the San Diego coastline. That Border Patrol unit now works with DHS and the Coast Guard to target human and drug smuggling.

— La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report.