AUSTRALIA has all but escaped the wrath of a Pacific Ocean tsunami triggered by a devastating 8.8-magnitude earthquake which struck off the coast of 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.

On Sunday Japan ordered more than 50,000 people to flee vulnerable areas as wailing sirens warned of a tsunami racing towards the country's Pacific coastline following the huge earthquake in Chile.

Waves of up to three metres (10 feet) could hit the northern areas of Aomori, Iwate and Miyagi, the Japan Meteorological Agency warned, even as fears of destructive waves eased across the rest of the Pacific.

The agency also issued warnings for waves of up to two metres along the entire Pacific coastline of the Japanese archipelago, from the northern main island of Hokkaido through to the southern Okinawa island chain.

 Authorities have cancelled a tsunami warning in Hawaii after the powerful earthquake in Chile triggered only small waves in the Pacific island US state

Earlier, an official at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre says Hawaii "dodged a bullet" after a major earthquake sent powerful waves roiling around the Pacific.

The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) issued a top priority tsunami warning for coastal areas of Queensland amid the possibility of dangerous waves.

Threatened areas extend from south of Double Island Point including Moreton Bay.

The warning for coastal areas between St Lawrence and Double island Point including Hervey Bay was cancelled mid-afternoon on Sunday, however unusual currents may still persist.

Beachgoers at New South Wales beaches on Sunday morning were ushered out of the water and off the beach by surf life savers.

"We've issued to all of our NSW clubs a directive to close the beaches until further notice," a SLS NSW spokeswoman told AAP.

Along the Sunshine Coast, all beaches have been closed, while lifesaving events, including Nippers, have been cancelled.

Lifeguards and lifesavers were telling people to get off the beach ahead of the warnings.

Massive earthquake recorded off the coast of Chile.Areas along the coastline were being cleared with people urged to stay away from the beach in the event of larger than normal waves.

The BOM said there was a possibility of dangerous waves, strong ocean currents and foreshore flooding.

Sea level observations have confirmed a tsunami has been generated.

Tsunami waves are more powerful than the same size beach waves, with the first wave not always the largest.

The following sea level gauges have observed a tsunami:

Norfolk Island 0100UTC 0.5M
Port Villa [Vanuatu] 0.4M
Lautoka [Fiji Islands] 0.2M
Apia [Samoa] 2018UTC 0.16M
Southport[Tasmania] 0100UTC 0.17M
Darlington[Tasmania] 0100UTC 0.17M
Port Kembla [NSW] 0100UTC 0.14M
Gold Coast [QLD] 0200UTC 0.2M

The warning says boats in harbours, estuaries or shallow coastal water should return to shore.
Secure your boat and move away from the waterfront. Vessels already at sea should stay offshore in deep water until further advised.

Do not go to the coast to watch the tsunami, as there is the possibility of dangerous, localised flooding of the immediate foreshore.

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View photos from the earthquake in Chile.

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