Emergency services rescued 156 people from a burning ferry crossing the Mediterranean from the island of Mallorca to the Spanish port of Valencia on 28 April, the ferry operator and government officials said.

The Sorrento ferry, belonging to the Italian company Atlantica di Navigazione, sent out distress signals, Spain's Ministry of Public Works said in a statement.

"The Sorrento carried 156 people on board between passengers and crew. All have been rescued," operator Acciona said in a statement, adding it did not know the cause of the fire or the state of the boat.

Spanish newspaper websites showed pictures of the ferry belching out clouds of black smoke. The evacuation took place an hour after the ferry left Palma de Mallorca, Acciona said.

Although the captain did not initially want to evacuate the ferry, passengers and crew eventually left the burning vessel in lifeboats, the ministry said.

Spain's sea rescue service sent four boats and a helicopter to help with the evacuation. The National Guard also sent two boats and a helicopter.

Rescued passenger Julian Garcia said the fire could have likely begun in the part of the ferry holding the vehicles.

"We heard explosions, I guess when the tyres from the cars exploded or perhaps a diesel tank. We heard many explosions while we were waiting," he said.

The burnt-out ferry could sink in the position where the rescue was carried out at 35 miles off the Mallorcan coast, the Balearic Island port authority said.