Elite soldiers taking part in a mission to retrieve bodies from White Island after the December 9 volcanic eruption, off the coast of Whakatane on the North Island, in this aerial photo taken on Friday. Photo: AFP

WELLINGTON: New Zealand divers searched contaminated waters near the volcanic White Island for two remaining bodies yesterday, as the death toll from an eruption rose to 15 people, the police said.

Waters around the island were contaminated by the massive eruption of rocks, lava and chemicals on Monday, reducing visibility.

“Divers have reported seeing a number of dead fish and eels washed ashore and floating in the water,” police said in a statement. “Each time they surface, the divers are decontaminated using fresh water.”

The remains of six people were successfully recovered on Friday after a military team in gas masks and hazmat suits landed on the uninhabited island and removed the bodies in a high-risk operation.

Police said they could not retrieve the remains of two more people, but spotted at least one body in the waters not too far from the island shoreline.

Nine police dive squad members resumed their search at 7am local time and the operation would be boosted by a navy dive team later in the day.

Elite soldiers taking part in a mission to retrieve bodies from White Island after the December 9 volcanic eruption, off the coast of Whakatane on the North Island, in this aerial photo taken on Friday. Photo: AFP

The police said in an earlier statement they will not return to the island for a land-based search yesterday, but will return in the future.

“Today’s planning will allow us to return to the island to conduct further land-based searches for the remaining deceased, as the environment on and around the island allows,” police said. “There will be no return to the island today.”

In a statement released yesterday, geological agency GeoNet said there was a 35 to 50 percent risk of an eruption that would impact beyond the volcano’s vent area in the next 24 hours.

The volcano, a popular tourist destination for day-trippers, erupted on Monday, spewing ash, steam and gases over the island. Among the 47 people on the island at the time was Australian, US, German, Chinese, British and Malaysian tourists.

The death toll rose to 15 yesterday as one more person died in the hospital. The toll may rise further as more than two dozen people are still hospitalised across New Zealand and Australia, most with severe burn injuries.

There has been criticism that tourists were allowed on the island at all, given signs of increasing tremor activity in the days before the eruption.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced yesterday that a minute’s silence will be observed at 2.11pm local time on December 16, exactly one week from when the fatal eruption occurred. – Reuters