As tourists wearing lanyards made their way to and from the Port of Tauranga's Mount Maunganui gates, a little boy and his mother placed a bunch of purple gerberas a few meters away.

Renee Emberson said news of the White Island tragedy hit close to home for her and son Declan, 4.

"It was so unexpected. Those people were visitors to our country. It has hit us quite hard. Whakatane is so close to where we are.

Renee and Declan Emberton pay tribute with a bunch of purple flowers at the Port of Tauranga. Photo / George Novak
Renee and Declan Emberton pay tribute with a bunch of purple flowers at the Port of Tauranga. Photo / George Novak

"I wanted to bring my son to pay our respects."

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Renee and Declan were joined by great-nan Lillian Emberson and nan Michelle Emberson, who had been celebrating her birthday. The four generations took a moment at the gates on Tuesday afternoon - a small window of calm among the comings and goings of tourists and the filming of TV news crews nearby.

The purple flowers joined a line of about 10 other floral tributes. Within a few hours, the number of flowers lining the port's entrance had more than doubled. The crowds around the flowers also grew in size.

"To think there were staff on that trip too, not just passengers," Michelle said.

"We've been on cruises before so this is just really emotional to think they came here and lost their lives."

As passengers ambled by, some wondered audibly whether they'd be leaving that night. Others chatted about what part of Australia they are from. The tears and distraught faces were more visible earlier in the morning.

Whakatāne woman Shirley Halliday said planned to visit White Island, also known as Whakaari, one day "but there was that thing about it being dangerous to go".

"It is such a tragedy. We just wanted to pay our respects.

"We just wanted to give our condolences. Our hearts go out to them."

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- additional reporting Zoe Hunter