White Island eruption: Police 'working towards plan' for Sunday recovery operation

Officials tasked with the White Island recovery mission are working towards a plan to head back to the volcano on Sunday.

After six bodies were found by police on Whakaari on Friday, police, the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF), and other agencies want to eventually return to the island to recover the remaining two bodies. 

One of those is understood to be in the ocean and is being searched for by dive squads, while the second is unaccounted for.

Friday's mission was carried out the elite SAS unit E Squadron after police and the NZDF decided that their recovery plan mitigated risk to a point they were comfortable to step foot back on the ash-covered island. It came after days of intense work by scientists measuring gas levels and considering the volcano's stability.

Even as the unit returned to Whakaari, the likelihood of another eruption was between 50 and 60 percent. That's reduced overnight, down to between 35 percent and 50 percent, with GNS also advising that volcanic tremours have declined significantly. 

Officials in charge of the recovery operation hope to return to the island on Sunday to continue their search for the bodies. However, that is contingent on several variables, including the volcano's state, the weather and sea.

"We're working towards a plan tomorrow," police deputy commissioner Mike Clements said in a Newshub interview.

"We have got to go through the same process that we went through the other day. I know it seems long and complicated because it is.

"We have had all of the agencies and the scientists locked away in the room… they will be doing exactly the same as they did the other day, presenting a plan to me and I, in turn, will discuss that with the Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner Tims later on this evening."

As they were on Friday, police are fully focussed on ensuring the safety of the eight people who make up the recovery operation team.

White Island eruption: Police 'working towards plan' for Sunday recovery operation
Photo credit: Supplied.

Clements told Newshub that the team that goes back to the island won't necessarily be the same team that went on Friday.

The squad members were shattered after Friday, according to Clements, so weren't deployable on Saturday. But they learnt a lot being on the island, rather than just observing it from a distance.

"We were able to determine a lot from a distance, but the operators who went on to the island yesterday have been talking with us about what they observed and we have been building that into our planning process for going back onto the island," Clements told Newshub.

"We have learnt that underfoot it is really tricky going, particularly in the area that we think we have to go back to as that is in a watercourse. 

"The operators on the ground yesterday were actually sinking up to calf level. That makes it really difficult in terms of footing and energy levels and if you are using oxygen, that is very sapping on the oxygen level."

He said the search area will be more refined, based on the information the team gathered on Friday. 

Officials know parts of the island where the body unaccounted for is not located. It is possible the body may have been caught in a watercourse that also led it out into the ocean.

Police dive squads were in the water from early on Saturday morning and face "unique and challenging conditions", according to Deputy Commissioner John Tims.

"The water around the island is contaminated, requiring the divers to take extra precautions to ensure their safety, including using specialist protective equipment," he said.

"Divers have reported seeing a number of dead fish and eels washed ashore and floating in the water.

"Each time they surface, the divers are decontaminated using freshwater.

"Conditions in the water today are not optimal, with between zero and two metres visibility depending on location."

A Navy dive squad joined the police in the afternoon.