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A tsunami advisory will remain in place for New Zealand overnight, Civil Defence says.

The entire east coast of New Zealand was put on red alert today, after a massive 8.8 earthquake struck Chile overnight.

Civil Defence and Emergency Management issued a tsunami warning for the country in the early hours of the morning as water surges of 1.5m reached Pitt Island in the Chathams.

But the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre this afternoon cancelled the warning for New Zealand.

The warning had mixed results as some sought high ground while others were either unaware of the threat or chose to ignore warnings, taking to the beaches and to the water in their boats.

The Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management this afternoon downgraded the warning for New Zealand to advisory status, which would remain in place overnight and be reviewed at 8am tomorrow.

Wave action of up to 1 metre continued to show on tidal gauges across the east coast of the North and South Islands and the Chatham Islands, without any indication of that height decreasing, the ministry said.

Civil Defence Minister John Carter said he was pleased with how the tsunami alert system worked after it was heavily criticised for communicating the threat in the wake of the Samoan earthquake and tsunami last year.

"Civil defence structures in the regions, along with the police, the fire service and the coastguard, and other authorities, all responded particularly well," he said.

"I guess the most pleasing aspect is that the memorandum of understanding with the media worked spectacularly."

The first waves hit New Zealand about 8am today and the Chatham Islands and Banks Peninsula could still expect waves between 1 and 3 metres.

Authorities on the mainland patrolled popular beaches up and down the country and warned boaties not to go out on the water.

In Orewa, north of Auckland, many of the locals took the advice and stayed away, while others on the North Shore said they were not aware of the tsunami.

At Takapuna, the police were at the boat ramp, warning boaties not to go out on the water but not everyone listened. One couple launched their boat after talking to the Herald.

A man, who did not give his name, said the warning did not worry him.

"I've heard every report from the last three hours. The safest place is on the water. We feel ok," he said.

A half marathon in Auckland was cancelled, as was a waka ama event. Paddlers from as far afield as the Solomon Islands had turned out for the regatta but despite the cancellation, waka headed out to sea.

Several other boaties who were about to head out were alarmed at the prospect of a metre-high wave hitting the east coast and were reconsidering their day on the water.

At Milford Beach two women who were about to set off on a walk were apparently unperturbed about the warning and did not change their plans.

"I've got my flippers," said one of the women.

On a bay north of Milford a man was fishing off a rocky outcrop.

At Whitianga a resident told NZPA that a warning siren had gone off, but residents didn't know what it was, so stayed put.

Further south in Gisborne a voluntary evacuation was underway of residents at Midway and Waikanae beaches, but in Napier stall-holders were setting up their Sunday market on the foreshore.

They said they preferred to wait until they had heard what had happened in the Chathams before packing up and moving inland.

On the East Cape paua fishermen and surfers headed out into the water as others made their way down to their local beach for a look.

Hicks Bay Motel Lodge owner John Campbell said locals were diving into the sea for paua, kina and crayfish, and fishermen had been back on the rocks by noon.

More than 100 people had earlier abandoned their homes to watch the tsunami arrive from higher ground, expecting the surges that had hit the Chatham Islands to arrive, Mr Campbell said.

He said there had been minor fluctuations and one surge swept 20 metres up a rivermouth, but locals were not convinced there would be any further danger.

In the Bay of Plenty, surf lifesaving clubs rushed people off beaches all along the coast but said some surfers had refused to heed warnings and headed out to catch the tsunami wave.

Beach-goers were being told to stay out of the water but a few were ignoring warnings, said Mount Maunganui patrol captain Danielle Shepherd.

"There are a handful that either don't care or think they're capable," Ms Shepherd said.

In Tutukaka - north of Whangarei - reported surges of one metre turned the normally placid harbour into a "washing machine".

"The wave was approximately one metre. It sucks out and comes in. It takes a couple of minutes. They are very long waves," said Jeroen Jongejans from his boat near the harbour entrance.

He said the water was discoloured indicating the energy level of the wave was very deep and had picked up debris from the harbour floor.

One of the marine markers indicating the course boats should take to get into the harbour was "violently shaking."

He said the tidal flow was estimated to be about 12 knots which was very strong.

Kate Malcolm from Dive Tutukaka said there had been several strong surges in the marina and there had been a rise and fall in the water level of about a metre and-a-half.

"It has resulted in a washing machine action in the marina.

Surges of one metre were also reported in the Bay of Islands township of Waitangi.

Gisborne, Napier, Castlepoint, Tauranga and the North Cape tsunami indicators also showed signs that surges of water reached mainland New Zealand.

John Davies from Civil Defence in Gisborne said a drop in the sea level had been noted by the local harbour master.

Mr Davies told Radio New Zealand that the council was monitoring water levels and warned people not to go to the beach.

But it was Pitt Island in the Chathams that saw the largest surges.

The island's Flowerpot Lodge owner Bernadette Mallinson said water levels surged above high tide levels even though the island was at low tide.

She said if the surges had continued at high tide then the effects would have been massive.

Ms Mallinson said residents were watching the seas from high ground.

Also in the Chathams was Catherine McKenzie who works at Chatham Lodge, situated inland near the Henga Scenic Reserve.

She said about 40 locals left their homes on the coast and gathered at the lodge to watch the news and listen to the radio.

"This is a safe place, a high place," Ms McKenzie said.

She said she was called by her boss at 3am and people began turning up two hours later.

Civil Defence Minister John Carter said there had been no reports of property damage or people being injured.

GNS Geonet project director Ken Gledhill said the quake off Chille was the fifth largest that the world had seen since 1900.

The quake, which sparked tsunami warnings across the Pacific, hit 325 kilometres southwest of Santiago with a depth of 35 kilometres at 3.34am local time (6.34pm NZT), the US Geological Survey reported.

A wave measuring 2.34 metres was recorded near Chille.

Mr Gledhill said this morning that people needed to take the tsunami warning seriously

"When you tell them it might be between one metre and 3 metres at the beach, that's quite a wide range but it's the kind of uncertainty we have to deal with. Add to that uncertainties in timing where the first wave probably won't be the biggest one unless you're quite near the source.

"The message is - you probably don't have to go to the beach today. It's probably better if you don't," he said.

- With NZPA