Lizard Island was known as Dyiigurra to the Dingaal Aboriginal people and was regarded as a sacred place. It was used by the people for the initiation of young males and for the harvesting of shellfish, turtles, dugongs and fish.
The Dingaal believed that the Lizard group of islands had been created in the Dreamtime. They saw it as a stingray, with Lizard Island being the body and the other islands in the group forming the tail.The islands are rich in cultural meaning for the Dingaal Aboriginal people and contain sacred sites including initiation, ceremonial and story sites. Shell middens, which provide evidence of long-ago feasting on clams, oysters, spider shells and trochus shells, are found on the islands.
Lizard Island also has a rich heritage associated with the earliest European exploration of the coast and subsequent settlement. Lost amongst the labyrinth of reefs, Captain James Cook resolved to visit one of the high islands to chart a course out to sea through the maze of reefs which confronted him.
The name Lizard Island was given to it by Captain Cook when he passed it on 12 August 1770. He commented, "The only land Animals we saw here were Lizards, and these seem'd to be pretty Plenty, which occasioned my naming the Island Lizard Island". Cook climbed the island's summit to find a way through the maze of reefs which has since been called ‘Cook's Look’.
Just over 100 years later the island was inhabited by bêche de mer fisherman. Watson's Bay on Lizard Island is named after one of these fishermen. The story of the escape of Watson's wife through the Great Barrier Reef from Lizard Island while sitting inside the cut-down boiler from a sunken ship has become one the most prominent tales of folklore from the pioneering era of Australia's history.Mary Watson (born 17 January 1860 – 1881) migrated to Queensland with her family in 1877. Having accepted a position as a governess with an hotelier's family, at eighteen Mary travelled from Maryborough to the isolated port of Cooktown, where she met and married bêche de mer fisherman Robert F. Watson in May 1880. Watson took her with him to set up a fishing station on Lizard Island, then otherwise uninhabited. In September 1880, Watson left his wife and son behind with two Chinese servants known as Ah Sam and Ah Leung, while he and his partner Percy Fuller made an extended fishing trip in their luggers.
A few weeks later a party of mainland Aborigines of the Guugu Yimmidir group made one of their habitual seasonal trips by canoe to the island, where Watson had set up his household in a stone structure close to a small creek, the island's only supply of fresh water.
Mary had probably also inadvertently trespassed on an indigenous ceremonial ground normally taboo to women and children. The Aborigines attacked Ah Sam, who suffered seven spear wounds, and Ah Leung was killed in a vegetable garden he was tending.
Mary Watson frightened off the group by firing a gun and then, with a small supply of food and water, put to sea in a cut-down ship's water tank, used for boiling sea slugs. She, with her four-month-old baby, Ferrier, and Ah Sam, drifted for eight days and some forty miles, hoping to be picked up by a passing vessel. Mary's final diary entry ended 'No water. Near dead with thirst.' Her diary describing their last days was found with their remains in 1882 among the mangroves on No. 5 Island in the Howick Group off Cape Flattery, still in the iron tank. Ah Sam had died on the beach nearby. A concealed spring existed on the islet, but they had not found it. When the bodies were returned to Cooktown a procession of 650 escorted them to their burial at Two Mile Cemetery, on the road to the Palmer River goldfields. Mrs Watson became an emblem of pioneer heroism for many Queenslanders.
Lizard Island's beauty and wilderness are distinctive, and Lizard Island was declared a National Park in 1937. The waters surrounding the island were declared a Marine Park in 1974. Today the islands are a popular tourism destination and the base for world-renowned tropical marine research.