The youngster who fell into the Whakatane River late yesterday afternoon has been described as a boy who stood out for the right reasons by his principal Doug McLean.

Mr McLean was one of many Whakatane Intermediate School teachers and students who turned up at the Whakatane River last night as the news of the incident spread through phone calls and on social media.

On an eerily still evening, they waited on the dark riverbank hoping for news as the LandSAR team set up their equipment and begun the search.

An uncle of the youngster had help putting up a tent as he prepared to spend the night beside the water. He was joined by other family members including the boy's father who had travelled from Gisborne after hearing the news.

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The boy's mother was told over the phone.

Mr McLean described the boy, who had been at the school for the past 18 months, as exceptionally polite.

"He was one of those kids who was prepared to give anything a go," Mr McLean said.

"I had him in the sevens side this year and while he didn't know much about the game, he gave it everything."

"Another thing that made him stand out was when you talked to him, he gave you his 100 per cent attention and would always look you in the eye. He had these incredible blue eyes that you couldn't forget."

Mr McLean said receiving the phone call last night had been the worst kind of shock.

"On the last day of school I talked to the students and told them all to keep themselves safe this holiday, especially around water."

The search for the youngster began after friends, who were with the boy at the Whakatane River at 6pm, told police he had fallen backward into the water and did not resurface.

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Coastguard was on the water shortly after while LandSAR volunteers searched the shoreline. The search was called off at about 10pm although another sweep of the shoreline was expected to take place at 2am when the tide was low.

The Police National Dive Squad were expected to arrive at the Whakatane Airport shortly after 9am today.

The boy's Facebook page was swamped with hundreds of messages of disbelief last night with many saying they hoped it wasn't true. His friends spoke about his sparkly eyes and his cheeky grin and how he would be sadly missed.