Holocene reef development was investigated by coring on Britomart Reef, a mid-shelf reef, 23 km long and 8 km wide situated 120 km north of Townsville in the central Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Two holes were drilled, Britomart 1 on a lagoon patch reef, and Britomart 2 on the windward reef crest. The Holocene reef (25·5 m) is the thickest yet recorded in the GBR and overlies an uneven substrate of weathered Pleistocene limestone.

Mineralogical and geochemical analyses show that magnesian calcite and aragonite were converted to low Mg-calcite below the Holocene-Pleistocene disconformity. Corals above the interface have 7500–8500 ppm Sr, but 1650–1500 ppm just below it, decreasing to 400–800 ppm downwards. The intermediate Sr values could be due to partial replacement of aragonite by calcite or higher original Sr content in the corals.

Three units are recognized in the Holocene: (1) coral boundstone unit, (2) coral framestone unit, and (3) coral rudstone unit. The coral boundstone unit forms the top 5 m of both cores and is algal-bound coral rubble similar to the present reef top. The coral framestone unit is composed of massive head corals Diploastrea heliopora and Porites sp., and is currently forming in patch reefs situated in the lagoon and along the reef front. The coral rudstone unit comprises coral rudstone and floatstone with unabraded, and unbound, coral clasts in muddy matrix. This matrix may be up to 30% sponge chips.

Radiocarbon dating indicates the reef grew more rapidly under the lagoon than under the reef front from 7000 to 5000 yr BP. The rate of reef growth matched existing estimates of sea-level rise, but lagged approximately 1000 years (5–10 m) behind it. Most of the reef mass accumulated between 8500 and 5000 yr BP as a mound of debris, perhaps stabilized by seagrasses or algae. Accretion of the reef top in a windward direction between 5000 and 3000 yr BP created the present, steep reef-front profile.