Six bodies recovered from volcano island
A recovery team has found the bodies of six people killed in the volcanic eruption on Whakaari/White Island.
The bodies will be airlifted to the HMNZS Wellington navy vessel before being taken back to the mainland.
NZ Police had earlier identified six bodies from aerial surveillance efforts and said teams would only look for the remaining two if they had time and believed it to be safe to do so.
Police earlier said the daring operation by New Zealand Defence Force was taking more time than expected, with heavy equipment for the team's protection restricting movement.
"There are many things that could go wrong with the plan given we don't control all the circumstances but for the time being our planning is playing out as we'd hoped," deputy police commissioner Mike Clement said.
"We have operators on the ground and now in the next few hours they will be undertaking the task of recovering the bodies.
"You can expect it to take the balance of the morning."
GNS Science has reported a 50 to 60 per cent chance of a further eruption, which is the major threat to the operation and the lives of people on Whakaari.
"The equipment that the operators are wearing on the island is significant in terms of its weight and how it restricts movement," Mr Clement said.
"They have to be protected from the environmental factors. They have to be prepared for the fact there might be an eruption."
"They have to move slowly."
New Zealand Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims said families of the victims were being kept informed about the operation.
"A blessing was held at sea with representatives of the families of the victims of the Whakaari/White Island volcanic eruption," Dep. Comm. Tims said in a statement.
"The family representatives are returning to the mainland and the operation to recover the eight bodies on the island has commenced."
Mr Clement said the conditions mimicked the still morning at nearby Whakatane, 50km from the volcano.
"What you see here is what you'd get out there. It's pretty good," he said.
"The wind condition is not perfect but we can work with the wind direction.
"The volcano is behaving.
"The sea state is manageable in terms of getting people on and off the island.
"All of those things are within our favour."
Now, like the families of the victims, Mr Clement is waiting.
"Everybody has a rich appreciation of the absolute bravery of everyone involved, particularly those going onto the island," he said.
"They will say 'it's their job' but the reality is we need people like that to do their job to get beyond moments like this."
Whakatane locals performed a haka during the blessing and are singing to keep spirits high as the New Zealand defence force launched its mission.
Even before first light today, vessels from the navy and White Island Tours headed out to sea to support the high-risk operation. Those involved in the mission travelled by ship and helicopter.
Whakatane Airport has been a hive of activity, with a Hercules C130 defence force plane arriving on Wednesday to support the mission and helicopters coming and going on this morning.
Locals have placed dozens of flower bouquets, as well as handwritten messages, in honour of the dead and missing.
IN PICTURES:Deadly volcano blast rocks New Zealand island
The return of the bodies is a white-hot issue in Whakatane, particularly for the families of local tour guides Hayden Marshall-Inman and Tipene Maangi, whose bodies lay near the crater.
Whakatane Mayor Judy Turner said there was a "growing desperation" among families to see bodies returned.
Mr Marshall-Inman's brother Mark has made a public appeal to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, asking her to relax travel restrictions on the island.
Hero helicopter pilot Mark Law, who flew onto the volcano after the eruption to assist the rescue effort, made a similar appeal.
Mr Clement said Law's expertise had been utilised in the plan's development.
As of last night, the official death toll remains at eight, with those remaining on the island giving a presumptive death toll of 16.
There are 21 patients in burns units across New Zealand, with seven Australians already transported across the Tasman for treatment in burns units close to their homes.
A further seven Australians will be expatriated when their condition allows their transfer.