Island archipelagos of the tropical coast of central Queensland include the most distant offshore islands used by Aboriginal Australians. Excavations on Collins, Otterbourne and High Peak Islands, located up to 40 km from the mainland, reveal evidence of offshore voyaging and marine specialisation in the Shoalwater Bay region for at least 5200 years. A time lag of up to 3000 years between island formation and systematic island use may reflect delayed development of key marine resources. Expansion of island use commencing around 3000–3500 years ago is linked to population increases sustained by synchronous increases in marine resources. Occupational hiatuses variously between 1000 and 3000 years ago are associated with increased ENSO activity. Intensified island use within the past 1000 years is primarily a social phenomenon associated with continuing demographic pressures and the development of more coastally and marine-focused mainland groups, with settlement patterns increasingly encompassing adjacent islands. The viability of risky offshore canoe voyaging was underwritten by two key high-return subsistence pursuits – hunting green turtles and collecting turtle eggs. In addition to subsistence and quartz quarrying, a key motivation for island visitation may have been socially restricted (e.g. ceremonial) practices.