Eruptions hit bird island

BY TOM FITZSIMONS
Last updated 05:00 20/03/2009

Ring of Fire volcano blows

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POWERFUL FORCES: Smoke is seen after an underwater volcano erupted in Hunga Ha'apai, Tonga.
Reuters
SMOKE AND ASH: An underwater volcano erupts at Hunga Ha'apai, Tonga.

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A huge underwater volcano off Tonga threw huge rocks into the air, left the sea coated in ash, and ravaged an island known as a bird paradise, a spectator says.

Lothar Slabon, 52, a German who has lived in Tonga for 16 years, took his eight-metre game-fishing boat to within 100 metres of the eruption.

Speaking from the capital, Nuku'alofa, Mr Slabon said he was alerted to the volcano about 2pm on Wednesday by tremors in the city and the sight of ash in the distance. "We saw it, but we had no idea what it was. It was just clouds, but they were fully attached to the water."

He jumped into his boat, which he operates for tourists, and went about 50 kilometres to a spot near the twin islands of Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha'apai.

He was stunned by the sight of two eruptions taking place one from deep underwater and the other from the shoreline of the western island.

A new block of land had risen up out of the water, jets of steam and ash were being regularly pumped hundreds of metres into the air, and the island had been effectively destroyed, he said.

"It's usually a bird paradise, this island, with a lot of palm trees and so many seabirds. Now it's just a war zone, it's all burnt, everything is gone. I don't want to know how many birds are dead."

Mr Sloban took photographs for an hour and scooped up a handful of ash from the surface of the water. "It was pure pitch black, what came out. And then it turned into steam, and ash, and there were huge rocks in the air. They were splashing in the water all around."

He did not feel at risk till he took the boat away and the eruption suddenly grew bigger.

"We were very lucky we got away from the real big one. We got away with it."

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- © Fairfax NZ News

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