Coral reef islands are considered to be among the most vulnerable environments to future sea-level rise. However, emerging data suggest that different island types, in contrasting locations, have formed under different conditions in relation to past sea level. Uniform assumptions about reef island futures under sea-level rise may thus be inappropriate. Using chronostratigraphic analysis from atoll rim islands (sand- and gravel-based) in the southern Maldives, we show that whilst island building initiated at different times around the atoll (~2,800 cal. yr. B.P. and ~4,200 cal. yr. B.P. at windward and leeward rim sites respectively), higher than present sea levels and associated high-energy wave events were actually critical to island initiation. Findings thus suggest that projected sea-level rise and increases in the magnitude of distal high-energy wave events could reactivate this process regime which, if there is an appropriate sediment supply, may facilitate further vertical reef island-building.