Efforts to retrieve the last two bodies remaining on Whakaari/White Island are expected to continue tomorrow, after six bodies were recovered from the volcano today.

The risky work to return the dead to their loved ones began at first light, almost four days after the eruption which took the lives of 16 people and injured 30, most critically.

Eight Defence Force members wearing full protective clothing, including closed-circuit breathing apparatus to guard against the toxic gases, landed on White Island, where they retrieved six of the eight bodies left behind after Monday's deadly eruption.

The bodies were then flown to the Navy ship HMNZS Wellington, which was anchored off the island, then airlifted to Whakatane Airport.


There, families had time to sit among their loved ones' coffins - despite not knowing which was their particular family member, deputy Labour leader Kelvin Davis said.

Six bodies arrived in Auckland this afternoon, where post mortems will be conducted. Photo / Michael Craig
Six bodies arrived in Auckland this afternoon, where post mortems will be conducted. Photo / Michael Craig

There was a sense of calmness, peace and overriding grief during that time, Davis said.

"It was just an opportunity - as they said - regardless of whether we're from Australia or New Zealand or wherever, at that moment we're one whanau and we'll mourn everybody as if they are our own."

Last night the bodies were flown by helicopter to Whenuapai airbase, where they were met by the solemn sight of a row of hearses lined up on the tarmac. The bodies were taken to Auckland Hospital, where post mortems are taking place.

Late this afternoon an aerial search also began for the two remaining bodies. Police divers were also deployed.

Conditions permitting, the divers, with the support of the New Zealand Defence Force, would return tomorrow, Police Commissioner Mike Bush said.

"It's not over yet."

Yesterday's effort began with a blessing held at sea with iwi and representatives of those who died.


Family members then returned to the mainland as the daring retrieval operation began.

It involved eight people on the ground and dozens more behind the scenes and was, Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement said, not without risk.

The NZDF staff on the island were six men and two women from the explosive ordnance disposal squad, Defence Force Colonel Rian McKinstry said.

Two Navy RHIBs (rigid-hull inflatable boats) deploying in the search area. Photo / NZDF
Two Navy RHIBs (rigid-hull inflatable boats) deploying in the search area. Photo / NZDF

Despite the protective clothing they were not completely protected from another eruption, with the risk of another eruption within 24 hours still judged to be 50/50 by GeoNet scientists.

There was a 6 per cent chance in any three hour period that the volcano would erupt, McKinstry said.

"We had a good quality mapping, that we had briefed our teams on, so they knew the general area of where those persons lay."

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It was a unique task for the team, who were also backed up by a second team on standby, but "well within their level of capability".

"As far as their demeanour is concerned, because of the bomb disposal nature of the trade, you can take it they are very level-headed individuals."

However, they would have "experienced things today" that required a debrief, he said.

"I am incredibly proud of these individuals."

Bringing back the bodies was the right thing to do, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said.

NZDF personnel on Whakaari/White Island. Photo / NZDF
NZDF personnel on Whakaari/White Island. Photo / NZDF

"We know that reunification won't ease that sense of loss or grief. I don't think anything can.

"We felt an enormous duty of care as New Zealanders to bring them back."

Mark Inman, whose White Island Tours guide brother Hayden Marshall-Inman was believed among the bodies on the island, today spoke of his relief at the retrieval efforts.

Marshall-Inman is believed to have died after he went back to help others after Monday's eruption, which occurred as tourists, mostly from Australia, were visiting the island.

"It's going to allow us to grieve and send our loved ones off in the manner they deserve."