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Originally published Tuesday, March 17, 2009 at 7:53 PM

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Undersea volcano in spectacular eruption off Tonga coast; no danger to people

An undersea volcano erupted off the coast of Tonga shooting clouds of smoke, steam and ash thousands of feet (meters) into the sky above the South Pacific ocean, officials said Wednesday.

NUKU'ALOFA, Tonga —

An undersea volcano erupted off the coast of Tonga shooting clouds of smoke, steam and ash thousands of feet (meters) into the sky above the South Pacific ocean, officials said Wednesday.

Spectacular columns spewed out of the sea about 6 miles (10 kilometers) from the southwest coast off the main island of Tongatapu — an area where up to 36 undersea volcanoes are clustered, said Tonga's geological service head, Keleti Mafi.

"It's a very significant eruption, on quite a large scale," he told The Associated Press.

There was no sign the offshore eruption posed any danger to residents, he said, with trade winds blowing gas and steam away from the island.

Residents said the steam and ash column first appeared on Monday morning, after a series of sharp earthquakes were felt in the capital, Nuku'alofa.

"This is not unusual for this area and we expect this to happen here at any time," Mafi said, adding that a similar eruption took place there in 2002.

A Defense Force boat was expected to travel to the region soon to check the area.

It was likely the underwater eruption was taking place to the west of the low-lying twin volcanic islands of Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha'apai, within sight of Nuku'alofa.

Large amounts of pumice thrown up by the erupting volcano would likely clog beaches on the southern coast of nearby Fiji islands within a short time, he said.

Tonga, a 170-island archipelago about halfway between Australia and Tahiti, is part of the Pacific "ring of fire" — an arc of earthquake and volcanic zones stretching from Chile in South America through Alaska and down through Vanuatu to Tonga.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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