Variability of the Leeuwin current (LC) off Western Australia is a footprint of interannual and decadal climate variations in the tropical Indo-Pacific. La Niña events often result in a strengthened LC, high coastal sea levels and unusually warm sea surface temperatures (SSTs), termed Ningaloo Niño. The rarity of such extreme events and the response of the southeastern Indian Ocean to regional and remote climate forcing are poorly understood owing to the lack of long-term records. Here we use well-replicated coral SST records from within the path of the LC, together with a reconstruction of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation to hindcast historical SST and LC strength from 1795 to 2010. We show that interannual and decadal variations in SST and LC strength characterized the past 215 years and that the most extreme sea level and SST anomalies occurred post 1980. These recent events were unprecedented in severity and are likely aided by accelerated global ocean warming and sea-level rise. © 2014 Macmillan Publishers Limited.