Six holes were drilled to depths of 30–69 m in the shallow lagoon of Aitutaki in the southern Cook Islands. One hole encountered pervasively dolomitized reef limestones at 36 m subbottom depth, which extended to the base of the drilled section at 69·3 m. This hole was drilled near the inner edge of the present barrier reef flat on the flank of a seismically defined subsurface ridge. Both the morphology and biofacies indicate that this ridge may represent an outer reef crest. Mineralogy, porosity and cementation change in concert downhole through three zones. Zone 1, 0–9 m, is composed of primary skeletal aragonite and calcite with minor void-filling aragonite and magnesian calcite cement of marine phreatic origin. Zone 2, 9–36 m, is composed of replacement calcite and calcite cement infilling intergranular, intragranular, mouldic and vuggy porosity. Stable isotopes (mean δ18O=—5·4‰ PDB for carbonate; δD =—50‰ SMOW for fluid inclusions) support the petrographic evidence indicating that sparry calcite cements formed in predominantly freshwater. Carbon isotope values of —4·0 to —11·0‰ for calcite indicate that organic matter and seawater were the sources of carbon. Zone 3, 36–69·3 m, is composed of replacement dolostone, consisting of protodolomite with, on average, 7 mol% excess CaCO3 and broad and weak ordering X-ray reflections at 2·41 and 2·54 A. The fine-scale replacement of skeletal grains and freshwater void-filling cements by dolomite did not significantly reduce porosity. Stable isotopes (mean δ18O=+2·6‰0 PDB for dolomite; maximum δD =—27‰ SMOW for fluid inclusions) and chemical composition indicate that the dolomite probably formed from seawater, although formation in the lower part of a mixed freshwater-seawater zone, with up to 40% freshwater contribution, cannot be completely ruled out. The carbon (δ13C=2·7‰) and magnesium were derived from seawater.

Low-temperature hydrothermal iron hydroxides and associated transition metals occur in void space in several narrow stratigraphic intervals in the limestone section that was replaced by dolomite. The entire section of dolomite is also enriched in these transition metals. The metals dispersed throughout the dolostone section were introduced at the time of dolomitization by a different and later episode of hydrothermal circulation than the one(s) that produced the localized deposits near the base of the section.

The primary reef framework is considered to have been deposited during several highstands of sea level. Following partial to local recrystallization of the limestone, a single episode of dolomitization occurred. Both tidal and thermal pumping drove large quantities of seawater through the porous rocks and perhaps maintained a wide mixing zone. However, the isotopic, geochemical and petrographic data do not clearly indicate the extent of seawater mixing.