TSUNAMI WARNING LATEST
* Wave surges strike New Zealand coastline as evacuated residents watch from higher ground
* Swarm of earthquakes in Pacific - including magnitude 8.1 quake in Kermadec Islands at 8.28am (NZT) - spark Civil Defence warnings
* Much of the North Island coastline had been under tsunami advisory - but the largest waves had passed by 1.30pm with no reports of damage
* Residents told they can return home - but people have been warned to stay off beaches
Thousands of Bay of Plenty residents who evacuated following this morning's tsunami warnings can now return home but are warned to stay off the beach.
Much of the North Island - including Northland, parts of the Bay of Plenty and the East Coast - has been under a tsunami warning and entire towns, such as Ōpōtiki, were ordered to evacuate following a massive 8.1 earthquake in the Kermadec Islands.
Wave surges are hitting parts of the New Zealand coast and residents are being warned to stay off beaches - but the largest waves have passed and thousands of evacuated residents can now return home.
Civil Defence advised at 1.17pm that the largest waves had now passed.
"Therefore the threat level is now downgraded to a Beach and Marine threat for all areas which were previously under Land and Marine threat. All people who evacuated can now return.
"There is still a danger to swimmers, surfers, people fishing, small boats and anyone in or near the water close to shore.
"People in or near the sea in the following areas should move out of the water, off beaches and shore areas and away from harbours, rivers and estuaries."
Emergency Management Minister Kiri Allan told NewstalkZB those who had evacuated could go home, which was really pleasing.
"Ive been so incredibly impressed how New Zealanders have responded .. a big massive thank you."
She was impressed with how people had kept calm and looked after themselves.
Long lines of cars lined the hills between Whakatāne and Ōhope with hundreds of people gathered at the top.
A few Ōpōtiki residents refused to leave their home despite a Civil Defence order to evacuate because of the tsunami danger in their area, district councillor Louis Rāpihana said.
Rāpihana told Nine to Noon he went along low-lying coastal areas near the eastern Bay of Plenty town as soon as he received the alert and told people they needed to leave. Some decided to stay and he said he could not force them to leave.
Whakatāne mayor Judy Turner says the town was "stunned" by the calls to evacuate.
"I have heard there is traffic congestion, so people are concerned about that and hope people will be patient and not get too carried away," she said.
Turner said she was aware of parents being concerned about their children at schools around the town but asked they trust their schools evacuation protocols.
Ōpōtiki mayor Lyn Riesterer says the town was evacuating following the order to move to higher ground.
She said most of the coastal Bay of Plenty town had to evacuate.
Whakatāne resident Maci Bateson, 18, said she was woken up about 8am by her mother saying they needed to evacuate immediately.
They decided to head to Maci's grandparents' farm in Poroporo, a rural suburb about 10km from Whakatāne.
"We didn't take time to pack or anything, we just got in the car and left."
Her family live near the town centre and Bateson said they struggled to leave the driveway due to all the traffic. She saw people parking their cars up on grass verges and running for the nearby hill.
"There were people just parking up and running."
A full operation is in force at Papamoa Hills, where the main car park is blocked and wardens are directing people to a separate area they've designated for parking. Cars are instructed to park up before heading up.
About 10 groups of people are at the top of Papamoa hills including small children and a pregnant woman. A group of four people told the Bay of Plenty Times they got in their car and came straight to the hills when they got the alert.
A Papamoa woman saw preschool children being pushed in carts and carried toward the over pass as her and her family drove to Papamoa hills. As she came to the intersection of the overpass, she saw children being given to parents picking them up.
Other cars were also stopping to help the staff, children and babies on the highway.
Te Akau ki Papamoa School principal Bruce Jepsen posted on the school's Facebook page saying although they had not been asked to evacuate, parents were able to pick up their children if they wanted too.
He asked people to stay calm and park responsibly.
He said the school's telephone lines were "exhausted" and asked people to "be considerate" at this time.
Papamoa Primary School was in close communication with other local colleges and would evacuate "as soon as directed", the school wrote in a post.
"You can collect your students from school but please sign them out from the office first. Please remain calm."
Susan Eng, a Tauranga retiree, has a view of the Waikareao Estuary from her home off Edgecumbe Rd.
She said there was "definitely disturbance" to the estuary.
"I noticed the tide started coming in a lot quicker than it normally would. There's rippley stripes on the estuary [but] there's only a little bit of breeze. It definitely looks different."
She said the water had looked "glassy" earlier.
Meg Collins lives about 22m above sea level near Ohiwa harbour near Ōhope. She was watching the "absolutely huge" waves come in with a telescope, while having a coffee.
"It's a bit exciting. From getting absolutely rushed out of bed with this enormous earthquake ... all the peaches fell off the tree, so now I'll be bottling peaches."
She said there were no cars on the road and birds seemed agitated.
A Whakatāne woman, who didn't want to be named and was in the centre of Whakatāne inside her business premises, said she had chosen not to evacuate because her business is multi-storied.
She said there were still a few cars driving past outside but apart from that all the shops were closed and she couldn't see anyone apart from police.
"It's quite eerie.
Papamoa East resident Barbara Lynn didn't have a chance to finish her coffee this morning when the alert came in.
She went outside and asked her neighbour if they should leave and he said yes.
"Get out of here."
She said there were long queues of people heading out the city but she felt safe at the hill.
Motiti Island resident Aubrey Hoete was in Rotorua today but said he would have been "more than happy to stay at home on the island" as they sat "53 metres above sea level" and waves would likely only impact low-lying beaches.
"I would feel quite safe there."
He said he had not received any warning messages and things seemed "pretty stable" on the island.