About 400 tourists were evacuated from earthquake-stricken Kaikoura yesterday in a scene one compared to Dunkirk.
They sailed to Lyttelton overnight on the HMNZS Canterbury and were taken by bus to Christchurch.
The Defence Force said it was the only mass evacuation by boat it had planned.
For most, it was their first experience of an earthquake.
Two of those who left Kaikoura, Lotta and Katja from Germany, said it could have been worse.
"There aren't usually earthquakes where we come from, so it was terrifying in the beginning," Lotta said.
"But then it was OK because there is a great community spirit around town and everyone is coping really well," Katja said.
"It's been a really great experience to see everyone helping each other."
They said they would continue travelling around New Zealand - as would Ivo from the Netherlands.
"Our landlady was just fantastic and took care of us in every way," he said.
"We were really uncertain when we would be able to get out of here so it's great it was organised so quickly.
"We're just starting our vacation in New Zealand so I think it's time we started really enjoying it."
He said the rescue effort reminded him of Dunkirk, where hundreds of thousands of Allied troops were rescued from the French beach during World War II.
Whale Watch boats helped ferry tourists to the Canterbury, while locals pitched in.
'We won't forget Kaikoura'
Lucie and Louisa, from France, were initially desperate to fly home after the earthquake.
"We just wanted to leave as quickly as possible, but now we're OK and we're going to continue our trip around the South Island," Louisa said.
"But we won't forget Kaikoura."
'This reef is just dying'
Heath Melville, a New Zealander visiting his family, resisted travelling home to Christchurch to continue helping his parents and friends.
He would wait a few more days for an inland road to open.
He said the earthquake did terrible damage to the ecosystem and marine life.
"This is home for me, I grew up in the bay and all this reef is just dying now," he said.
"Everything has risen out of the water and been stranded on a big plateau of rock. My friends and I went for a walk yesterday and threw some starfish and paua back into the ocean, but I'd hate to see what it's like up the coast."
While tourists were being evacuated, a second navy frigate, the HMNZS Wellington, surveyed the seabed, which rose more than a metre in some places.
The military evacuation of tourists and locals has now ended and the Defence Force will turn to bringing in relief supplies for those who remain.
People wanting to Kaikoura will have to wait until the inland road route is made safe for ordinary vehicles - expected to be by the weekend.