At least five people dead after volcano erupts off New Zealand coast

Five people have died after a volcano erupted on an island less than 50km off the coast of New Zealand’s North Island.

Heavy smoke began to flow from the volcano, located on White Island in the Bay of Plenty, on Monday at 2.10pm (12.10pm AEDT).

New Zealand Police’s National Operations Commander Deputy Commissioner John Tims told reporters five died after being rescued from the island.

He added some of the others rescued suffered severe burns.

People are seen here walking on White Island not long before the eruption Source: GeoNet

Former Whakatane mayor Tony Bonne told The New Zealand Herald one of the five killed was a man working as a tour operator for White Island Tours.

New Zealand Police are yet to identify and victims.

Conditions are too dangerous for emergency services to access the island, though 23 people were ferried from the scene.

With an estimate of about 50 people on the island at the time of the eruption, fears are held for those remaining.

Both New Zealanders and overseas tourists are believed to be involved, NZ police said.

Passengers on Australian cruise caught up in eruption

Ovation of the Seas passengers along with one crew member were present on the island during the eruption, The New Zealand Herald reported.

Nigel Walker and his family, from Wollongong – south of Sydney, told the publication he was on board the cruise.

"It's tragic,” he said.

Tourists are seen here on the island following the eruption. Source: Twitter/ Michael Schade

“I was only saying to my mother-in-law before the cruise that White Island would be a great pĺace to visit."

A spokesman for Royal Caribbean, who operate Ovation of the Seas, confirmed to News Corp guests from the ship had visited White Island.

“We do not have any additional details to share at this time,” the spokesman said.

The ship was berthed at Port of Tauranga on Monday morning.

Images taken by geological hazard trackers GeoNet show a group of people walking on White Island just moments before the volcano erupted.

It was initially believed there were about 100 people on or near the island at the time of the eruption.

Tourists missing on island

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said "some of those are unaccounted for", according to the latest information provided to her.

Of the people who had been transported to shore, at least one had been critically injured, NZ Police said.

The volcanic alert level had been raised to level four, the second-highest rating, meaning there was an eruption hazard on and near the volcano. But it has since been downgraded to level three.

Photo from above an erupting volcano on White Island. Source: Instagram/byminke

Several rescue helicopters had been dispatched to the island to remove people.

The island is 48 kilometres from the Bay of Plenty, a bight in the northern coast of New Zealand's North Island.

The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) issued a national warning for a moderate volcanic eruption, describing the environment “hazardous in the immediate vicinity of the volcano”.

“Volcanic hazards may impact areas on and near the volcano. Ashfall may impact areas distant from the volcano. People should stay out of designated restricted zones.”

GeoNet had registered moderate volcanic unrest on the island for weeks before Monday afternoon's eruption.

Helicopters have been dispatched to assess the situation.

A man named Dan Harvey told The New Zealand Herald he was fishing about 40 kilometres from the island when a dark plume of smoke projected into the sky about 2.15pm.

“I looked over and saw a burst of steam coming up. There was nothing above the island at that time. It was just clear blue sky. It was unusual to see it go from nothing to steam erupting out of it,” he said.

Bay of Plenty resident Maree Reeve told SunLive she had “never seen a puff like this” from the volcano despite living in the area for 18 years.

Ms Reeve said it was the worst eruption she had seen from the island.

The island is privately owned and is home to New Zealand's most active cone volcano.

With AAP

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