About 25 Cuban nationals landed at the Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park in Key Biscayne on Friday

Virtually every family in this fishing town 150 miles east of Havana knows someone who has boarded an overcrowded boat headed for the Florida Straits, a flow of human cargo that has waxed and waned over the years based on U.S. immigration policies, gumption and tide charts.

Now, say U.S. immigration officials, the number of Cubans caught at sea is rising, and more are making it to South Florida shores.

According to U.S. Coast Guard figures, 2,029 Cubans were intercepted on the high seas so far this year. That’s the most in one year since the Coast Guard stopped almost 40,000 Cubans in 1994.

Additionally, 2,347 Cubans have made it to South Florida since October, including 109 who landed in five separate incidents in a two-day period this week. The total is the most in four years, up from 955 during the same time period in 2004.

Coast Guard and Border Patrol officials deny that the high numbers signal a mass exodus. They say that despite the hurricanes and tropical storms that have threatened or hit South Florida, the Florida Straits have been calm and immigrant smugglers are taking advantage.

“They’re in the business of smuggling people for profit,” said Assistant Chief Patrol Agent Steve McDonald of the Border Patrol. “When the seas are calm, they can get people into these boats and they can make more money.”

The Coast Guard also credits interagency cooperation for the increased interceptions. The Coast Guard works with several federal, state and local agencies to track down and stop the would-be immigrants.

Under the so-called “wet foot/dry foot” policy, Cubans who are caught at sea are interviewed by immigration agents and repatriated if they cannot show a credible fear of persecution if returned to the island. The vast majority are sent back. Those who make it to U.S. soil, however, are generally allowed to stay in the United States.

As a result, many families turn to smugglers to bring their loved ones to the United States. The Coast Guard, though, warns against the practice, and this year several deadly incidents have backed up that warning.

Earlier this summer, at least two Cuban men died from injuries they suffered in smuggling trips. Then, in August, three people whom a merchant vessel found at sea were taken to Cuba. There, they told authorities they survived the capsizing of a speedboat headed to the United States and said 31 other people aboard were swept away. The Coast Guard found the boat, but no trace of the people on board.

“It’s 150 miles of travesty, where you don’t see any land,” recounted Alexander Francisco Garcia, a mechanical engineer in Caibarien who said he has been intercepted at sea four times. “It’s a very deep ocean. The water is black.”

Displaying three crumpled tickets, fines by Cuban authorities for trying to leave, Garcia cited the summer’s rolling blackouts, dismal salaries and clamped opportunities as reasons why some Cubans want to get away.

“People want to go out and protest in the streets, but they can’t, so they look for escape in the ocean,” he said.

The Ministry of Foreign Relations did not respond to an interview request about the rising number of Cuban immigrants.

Other villagers in Caibarien, a sunstruck community of red-tile roofs and stray dogs, were hesitant to speculate why more Cubans were being picked up at sea. But they said their town, tucked behind a necklace of keys where boats can duck away from the Cuban coast guard, has been a magnet for departing Cubans for more than a decade.

“It’s something we can’t get used to,” said Claribel Bolaos, whose stepdaughter Yeisy disappeared across the ocean in May after telling her parents she was going to a birthday party and might sleep over at a friend’s house. “We still miss her, still, still, still.”

The next morning, Yeisy called from Miami to say she’d immigrated with her 4-year-old daughter. A few weeks later, a stack of photographs arrived showing Yeisy and her daughter in West Palm Beach, smiling against a backdrop of refrigerator magnets in a big white kitchen and visiting a Lego park.

“She said to me, `How would you feel if I left?’” recounted her father, Juan Gonzalez, replaying her last night at home. “But it never occurred to me that she would go. I went out into the street to find her. She took a little piece of me.”

Sitting near Gonzalez on the seawall, Angel Raul Perez blamed scarcity and tough government controls for fueling departures.

“The youth has no aspiration,” Perez said. “Sometimes there’s not enough to eat. Things are too expensive, and everything in Cuba is illegal.”

He pointed his thumb over his shoulder at the quiet, dark ocean, and said, “It’s irresistible.”

Ruth Morris reported from Caibarien. Madeline Baro Diaz reported from Miami.