A major earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale was widely felt over much of New Zealand on Thursday evening and cut power and telephone lines in Gisborne, on the east coast of the North Island.
Centred below the sea 50 kilometres south-east of Gisborne, the quake was reportedly felt 1,250 kilometres away in the South Island city of Dunedin, Radio New Zealand reported.
The national crisis management centre said it was not immediately issuing a tsunami alert, but had unconfirmed reports of damage in Gisborne.
Residents of Napier, 220 kilometres south of Gisborne, said the quake, which struck at 8.55 pm local time with a focal depth of 40 kilometres, created a tremendous roar and set light fittings swinging.
Seismologist Warwick Smith of GNS Science said the quake may have caused minor damage, especially in the Gisborne-Napier area, but it would have been much more severe had it been centred on land.
Seismologists at GNS Science record about 14,000 earthquakes a year in and around New Zealand, about 100 to 150 of them big enough to be felt.
They rate quakes between 6 and 6.9 magnitude as "strong" and say about 120 a year of that strength are recorded around the world.
The scientists said that records dating from the 1840s showed that, on average, New Zealand can expect several magnitude 6 earthquakes every year.
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