The Cretaceous has long been recognized as a time when greenhouse conditions were fueled by elevated atmospheric CO2 and accompanied by perturbations of the global carbon cycle described as oceanic anoxic events (OAEs). Yet, the magnitude and frequency of temperature change during this interval of warm and equable climate are poorly constrained. Here we present a high-resolution record of sea-surface temperatures (SSTs) reconstructed using the TEX86 paleothermometer for a sequence of early Aptian organic-rich sediments deposited during the first Cretaceous OAE (OAE1a) at Shatsky Rise in the tropical Pacific. SSTs range from ∼30 to ∼36 °C and include two prominent cooling episodes of ∼4 °C. The cooler temperatures reflect significant temperature instability in the tropics likely triggered by changes in carbon cycling induced by enhanced burial of organic matter. SST instability recorded during the early Aptian in the Pacific is comparable to that reported for the late Albian–early Cenomanian in the Atlantic, suggesting that such climate perturbations may have recurred during the Cretaceous with concomitant consequences for biota and the marine environment.