An underwater volcano erupted near the island of Vanuatu Wednesday, causing a massive explosion of ash to rise from the sea just off the South Pacific nation’s coast.

The Vanuatu Meteorology and Geo-hazards Department (VMGD) confirmed increased activity near the East Epi volcano shortly before 8 a.m. local time. 

Photos taken in the hours after the eruption began show mountains of ash bursting into the blue sky above the water.

In a statement issued on Facebook, the VMGD cautioned boaters and pilots to stay at least 6 miles away from the eruption zone.

“People on Epi and surrounding islands are also advised to stay on alert for any large earthquake associated with the ongoing volcanic eruptions that could trigger a possible tsunami,” the warning continued.

Mountains of ash billowing above the water as seen over some green trees.
The East Epi submarine volcano started to erupt in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
Mayline Leleny / Vanuatu Meteoro

Located just over 42 miles north of the capital city of Port Vila, East Epi is part of a group of submarine volcanoes off the coast of Epi, the island at the center of the Vanuatu archipelago, the Miami Herald reported.

Wednesday’s eruption marked the volcano’s first activity since 2004, the outlet said. 

The official volcano alert is at the first level, for “minor unrest.”

A radar map showing East Epi's location relative to the islands of Vanuatu.
East Epi is located off the island of Epi, in the center of the archipelago.
Vanuatu Meteorology and Geo-haza

According to CBS News, eyewitness and government official Philip Dick told AFP that the ground started shaking and smoke was visible above the volcano site in the early hours of the morning.

“Then the explosions began — there is still a bad smell of sulfur within the nearby villages,” he said.

News of East Epi’s eruption comes less than one month after Vanuatu’s largest island, Espiritu Santo, was hit with a 7.0-magnitude earthquake.

Sprays of ash bursting into the sky above the ocean.
Boaters and aviators are advised to give the underwater volcano a wide berth.
Mayline Leleny / Vanuatu Meteoro

Nestled in the Pacific Ocean’s “Ring of Fire,” Vanuatu is prone to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and cyclones, CBS News said.

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