EMOTIONAL: Family members of those still on the island held a blessing at sea this morning. Their anguish was evident to everyone on shore. D9348-117 Photos Troy Baker

UPDATE: THE operation to recover the bodies on Whakaari/White Island this morning is going to plan.

THERE have been emotional scenes at The Heads in Whakatane where families have gathered while New Zealand Defence Force personnel launch a body recovery mission on Whakaari, White Island this morning.

A blessing was held at sea this morning with representatives of the families of the victims of the volcanic eruption on Monday afternoon. The eruption has claimed eight lives, while another eight people are presumed dead on the island, and 23 people are critically injured in burn units around the country.

The operation to recover the bodies began at first light this morning with Navy helicopters leaving Whakatane Airport at 4.30am to fly to White Island. From there the recovered bodies will be taken to the HMS Wellington, berthed offshore and are expected to be taken to Auckland where post-mortems will be performed

Emergency services were also gathered at Whakatane Airport in preparation should anything occur on the mission following volcanologist warnings on Thursday night that the risk of another eruption had increased to 50-60 percent.

Deputy Police Commissioner John Tims announced at 8.30am that the body recovery team had landed on the island.

Police said they expected to recover only six of the eight bodies on the island.

Crowds were gathered all morning at The Heads, looking out to sea while the recovery operation continued. A moving waiata was sung earlier in the morning by whanau of Tipene Maangi, one of the people presumed still to be on the island. Mr Maangi was a tour guide for White Island Tours.

The recovery team was also expected to return the body of Hayden Marshall-Inman, another tour guide with the company.