01.21 pm, Tuesday March 02 2010

Worst of tsunami misses Australia

18:11 AEST Sun Feb 28 2010
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Tsunami deniers
Beach goers stayed near Bondi Beach despite the threat of a tsunami from the Chile earthquake.

Australia has all but escaped the wrath of a Pacific Ocean tsunami triggered by a devastating 8.8-magnitude earthquake that struck the coast of central Chile.

Beaches on Sunday were closed and emergency services were on patrol as the brunt of the tsunami waves travelled in a northwest direction, narrowly missing Australia's east coast.

But tsunami waves were recorded along the NSW, Queensland and Tasmanian coasts, with Norfolk Island recording a 50cm surge in sea levels.

The Gold Coast saw a 20cm increase in sea levels. In Tasmania, Southport and Darlington experienced a 17cm increase.

Port Kembla on NSW's south coast recorded a 14cm increase, but no damage or emergencies occurred.

All nipper activities were cancelled, people were ordered out of the ocean and events such as the Quiksilver Pro surfing competition at Snapper Rocks on the Gold Coast were postponed and spectators asked to leave.

The earthquake struck off the coast of central Chile about 5.30pm (AEDT) on Saturday, killing hundreds and sending shockwaves throughout the Pacific.

The Joint Australian Tsunami Warning Centre (JATWC) issued a tsunami alert, declaring a "potential tsunami threat" for Queensland, NSW, Victoria, Tasmania, Lord Howe Island and Norfolk Island.

Dangerous waves and foreshore flooding listed in the warnings did not eventuate but the JATWC was focused on strong ocean currents affecting people in boats or in the water.

The peak of activity was expected around 9am (AEDT) on Sunday at the time of the high tide, but it arrived 90 minutes later when an outgoing tide worked to subdue any potential devastating effects.

"We will probably start to wind it back from later this afternoon," JATWC acting assistant director Alasdair Hainsworth told AAP on Sunday afternoon.

"In all likelihood (the tsunami warning) will be cancelled later today or tonight."

Mr Hainsworth said shockwaves from an underwater 8.8-magnitude earthquake could be devastating.

The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami wiped out entire coastlines and villages as it swept through southeast Asia.

"We in Australia have been very, very lucky indeed," Mr Hainsworth said.

"The focus of the energy from the earthquake was definitely to the northwest from South America.

"So we were much on the periphery of the seismic seawave events."

But JATWC kept its tsunami warning in place for Sunday, because the quick changes in sea levels around Australia's east coast could cause severe currents.

"We were never, ever expecting a large wave," Mr Hainsworth said.

"We were only ever expecting a marine wave and a marine warning situation which was directed at those people on boats or in the water."

At one point on Sunday morning, the JATWC issued an immediate warning for people to exit coastal waters.

Many ignored the danger to enjoy the last day of summer with a swim, a surf or a local fishing expedition.

"We can try, but we have no policing powers," a Surf Life Saving NSW spokeswoman told AAP.

More than 800 nippers were sent home from Sydney's Coogee beach, but people remained near the shore after receiving official warnings from surf life savers.

Surfers continued to catch waves at nearby Bondi beach as swimmers risked a morning dip.

State Emergency Service volunteers remained on alert and rescue helicopters patrolled beaches, using loudspeakers to warn rock fisherman to leave the foreshore.

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