Six bodies have been safely removed from White Island, as authorities continue efforts to return the last two victims to their families.

There is a sense of relief among the public and authorities alike, on the ground in Whakatāne, after police announced that six bodies had been airlifted off Whakaari this morning.

And there is a promise to the families of the last two victims still on the island - the operation effort will still go on in a bid to bring them home.

Police deputy commissioner Wally Haumaha told media the operation was still going, in a bid two bring the remaining two victims still on the island home, but that the focus today was on the six people retrieved.

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"People are feeling really aroha and sad for how that recovery is taking place.

"But at this point in time, [it's] just thinking about the recovery and bringing back home the other six bodies - we'll deal with the other parts as it progresses."

Members of the local community gather to sing and pray on the waterfront in Whakatane this morning as the recovery mission begins. Photo / Alan Gibson
Members of the local community gather to sing and pray on the waterfront in Whakatane this morning as the recovery mission begins. Photo / Alan Gibson

Haumaha acknowledged the role of local iwi Ngāti Awa and what its elders have done, in particular, to help victims' families.

He spoke of poignant moments shared by families on board a vessel carrying victims' representatives.

A spiritual connection between iwi members and the area - including the island itself - was shared about to those on board the vessel, many of whom were Australian, he said.

"It was just one of those moments - probably a moment even the Australians thinking that this would never happen for their families. And they were deeply appreciative.

"[The iwi's] kaumatua blessed the island, the families of the deceased were able to grieve close to the island knowing that their loved ones would soon be returned back to them," Haumaha said.

"They felt that genuine contact in what was taking place."

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Police this morning announced six people had been airlifted off Whakaari and were being prepared for airlifting.

It was later announced that they had all safely been put on to the HMNZS Wellington, by helicopter, and that they would be taken to the mainland before being transported to Auckland.

Among the grief and devastation, there is work to do.

Things were going well, police said early on, and that they expected the recovery operation to continue for another two hours.

Deputy Commissioner John Tims said: "The operation to recover the bodies from Whakaari/White Island is progressing and the team is well advanced with the recovery of the bodies."

Police earlier said the operation would take longer than expected due to the protective equipment members of the crew had to wear.

An officer called the gear "restrictive and heavy, but necessary".

Weather conditions, as well as sea state and the environment on the island five days after the eruption, are good for the operation.

There have been harrowing scenes in Whakatāne in the last few hours, as victims' family members and locals gathered at the wharf and shoreline to see off the recovery team and another vessel carrying victims' representatives.

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A karakia was said and moving waiata sung at the site.

As the vessel carrying the family members returned, an elderly woman called out to it as women around her started to wail.

Chairman of White Island Tours Paul Quinn spoke to media outside the nearby marae this morning, explaining the traditional Māori protocol that was carried out as vessels went out to Whakaari in the early hours today.

"We took one of our White Island vessels that left at 4.30 this morning to conduct the service on the basis that - at this point - lifting the tapu off and preparing the way for the recovery team to go on to the island and do what they have to do."

Quinn said it was important that a service and blessing be held before the bodies were removed.

The scene early this morning as the recovery mission gets underway for the victims of the White Island eruption. Photo / Alan Gibson
The scene early this morning as the recovery mission gets underway for the victims of the White Island eruption. Photo / Alan Gibson

The National Emergency Management Agency is co-ordinating the all-of-government response to the volcanic eruption, which took place on Monday afternoon.

More than 20 government and support agencies are responding to the incident.

The official death toll stands at eight as of yesterday afternoon.

A total of 21 people remain in hospitals around the country, while five of the victims have been flown to Australia for treatment.

Five people have been discharged from hospital.

Eight people, believed to be on the island, are presumed dead.