Following a question that I posted on stackoverflow.com, I recieved the great advice to use the Bioconductor rhdf5 package to work with HDF5 files. The package is not located on CRAN, but can be sourced from the Bioconductor website:
As an example, I use the package to extract Pathfinder sea surface temperature (SST) data, available in netCDF-4 format (the features of netCDF-4 are a subset of the features of HDF5). This type of file is not readable by the netCDF package ncdf.The result is the above plot of a subarea from one of the daily data sets.
To reproduce the figure, you will need the image.scale and val2col functions found on this blog.
To reproduce example: