A woman is dead after a family gathering turned to tragedy in the Bay of Islands.

The woman's body was found at dawn today, floating in the sea near the base of a steep cliff on Moturua Island.

The woman, in her sixties and believed to be from America, had last been seen yesterday before when she headed off to walk a section of the track that spans the Department of Conservation island reserve.

An extensive search of the island, shore and surrounding waters was started by her family and other nearby boaties after she had failed to return at 5pm.

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An official Search and Rescue operation was mounted soon after.