A Porites sp. coral growing offshore from the Sepik and Ramu Rivers in equatorial northern Papua New Guinea has yielded an accurate 20-year history (1977-1996) of sea surface temperature (SST), river discharge, and wind-induced mixing of the upper water column. Depressions in average SSTs of about 0.5-1.0°C (indicated by coral Sr/Ca) and markedly diminished freshwater runoff to the coastal ocean (indicated by coral δ 18O, δ 13C and UV fluorescence) are evident during the El Niño - Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events of 1982-1983, 1987 and 1991-1993. The perturbations recorded by the coral are in good agreement with changes in instrumental SST and river discharge/precipitation records, which are known to be diagnostic of the response of the Pacific Warm Pool ocean-atmosphere system to El Niño. Consideration of coastal ocean dynamics indicates that the establishment of northwest monsoon winds promotes mixing of near-surface waters to greater depths in the first quarter of most years, making the coral record sensitive to changes in the Asian-Australian monsoon cycle. Sudden cooling of SSTs by ∼1°C following westerly wind episodes, as indicated by the coral Sr/Ca, is consistent with greater mixing in the upper water column at these times. Furthermore, the coral UV fluorescence and oxygen isotope data indicate minimal contribution of river runoff to surface ocean waters at the beginning of most years, during the time of maximum discharge. This abrupt shift in flood-plume behaviour appears to reflect the duration and magnitude of northwest monsoon winds, which tend to disperse flood plume waters to a greater extent in the water column when wind-mixing is enhanced. Our results suggest that a multi-proxy geochemical approach to the production of long coral records should provide comprehensive reconstructions of tropical paleoclimate processes operating on interannual timescales. © 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.