polartours header c
Arctic tern

Arctic Tern

The world's distance record-holder - a Pole-to-Pole migrant!

What you need to know about the Arctic Tern

Our Expert Says… Arctic Tern chicks are very precocious. Within just a couple of days of hatching, they are already able to move about and often leave the nest for a wander! This can make the adults concerned and more likely to attack any nearby visitors."

The Arctic tern is remarkable for its migration. It breeds in the Arctic summer, then flies to the Antarctic for the southern summer. Its reward for this 12,000 miles-plus journey is that the Arctic tern enjoys two per year summers, and is said to experience more daylight than any other creature on the planet!

What is even more remarkable is that the newly-fledged chicks make this migratory journey, too. One impressive example was an unfledged chick that was ringed in the northern UK in June 1982 being found in Australia in October - a journey of 14,000 miles just 3 months after fledging.

Modern tracking surveys have shown that this is not unusual and that many Arctic terns will cover 40-50,000 miles every year. It is very rare to spot an Arctic tern outside of the breeding season as their migration routes are far offshore.

A medium-sized bird, the Arctic tern has a distinctive dark red beak, legs, and feet. Like other terns, it has a deeply forked tail. The head has a black cap with grey nape and the birds have grey upperparts with the rest of the body being mainly white with some grey.

Arctic terns nest in large colonies and lay their eggs in small depressions in the ground. They are protective of the eggs and chicks and very aggressive, even attacking humans who stray too close. Although not able to do too much damage, they can certainly give your head a painful cut and they are bold enough to often be successful at deterring foxes, cats, predatory birds, and even polar bears.

Arctic Tern: Interesting facts

It is calculated an Arctic Tern may do an average 'round trip' of 70,900km/44,100 miles each year. They can live to 30 years or more, meaning some older birds may fly over 2,100,000km/1,300,000 miles in their life time, that is around 3 times to the moon and back!

Arctic Tern: Pictures & Videos

Arctic tern

Spots where the Arctic Tern can be observed

Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus)
Exploring the pack ice

The highlight of many Svalbard cruises is to explore the pack ice, and the best conditions occur when there is an obvious edge to pack ice to sail past, or calm seas where some ships go into the loose pack ice.

It is a unique and unforgettable experience to explore the pack ice ‘at the top of the World’. Seabirds feed along the edge, that can also be good for Harp Seals, and whales. The highlight is to spot a bear. Sometimes they are at a distance, sometimes a few hundred metres away, sometimes they come right up to the ship. What is crucial is to bring binoculars to enjoy and observe the Polar Bear in the heart of their realm, the pack ice, whatever the distance.

Sometimes a bear is seen quickly, sometimes it takes a few hours, sometimes it takes most of the day. Other times two days can be spent exploring the pack without seeing a bear. It is important to patient, enjoy the whole experience, with a bear sighting being the icing on … the pack ice! Conditions can change quickly. Mists often come in to reduce visibility. Currents can spread out the ice into widely scattered pack, making bear sightings less likely. Strong winds and a swell can mean keeping further away from the pack ice edge.   In the early season the whole northern coast is in the grip of the pack, plus fast ice in the deeper parts of the fjords on the western side. Ships explore the ice edge to the NW of Spitsbergen at this time, with more options as the ice retreats north. As the pack ice retreats north it gradually ‘unzips’ from west to east, clearing the coast of northern Spitsbergen first, then the northern end of Hinlopenstretet, (enabling circumnavigations of Spitsbergen, exactly when varying from season to season), then the northern coast of Nordaustlandet and Sjuøyane.

Some years the ice edge can end up a long way to the north, enabling a circumnavigation of the whole archipelago, even to reach remote Kvitøya. Other years, pack ice remains along the northern coast of Nordaustlandet, caught up among the offshore islands. This prevents a circumnavigation of the archipelago, but the areas of drifting pack ice around and places like Lagøya and Sjuøyane can be superb for ship cruising and even Zodiac cruise amongst the pack.

Port Charcot, Booth Island

Port Charcot is a small bay at the north end of Booth Island. Booth Island is a rocky and rugged Y-shaped island off the Kiev Peninsula in Graham Land. It was first mapped in 1904 when the French Antarctic expedition led by Jean-Baptise Charcot over-wintered here.

After building a few rudimentary shelters and the cairn that can still be seen at the top of the hill, the expedition used Port Charcot as its base for exploring the area, that is close to the Lemaire Channel and the division between the NW and the SW peninsula . There is the remains of a stone hut used for astronomical observations and a wooden pillar with a plaque here where you can still make out the names of the first expedition members who wrote them almost 120 years ago.

In the bay where the Français was anchored (but difficult to reach with the ice) the letter 'F' was carved onto the rocks and can still be seen.

The walk to the cairn is delightful, although you’ll be carefully led by guides as wandering off the path can be treacherous, with loose rocks and crevasses. Visitors can also walk to the east where there is a noisy Gentoo penguin colony. Chinstraps and Adelies can also be seen on the beaches here. If you are lucky, you might get all three together!

From the top the views are stunning, especially the view to the SW, towards Pléneau Island Island, overlooking 'the iceberg graveyard'. This iceberg graveyard can be explored on a spectacular Zodiac cruise, either from ships anchored off Port Charcot to the 'NW' of the Lemaire Channel, or from ships anchored off Pléneau Island and Booth Island that had sailed through through the Lemaire Channel. For full details of this Zodiac cruise refer to the details under Pléneau Island.

Our trips to spot the Arctic Tern

2024 Polartours, a Ventura TRAVEL GmbH brand

All rights reserved

Polar Specialist

Your contact


Book a video consultation

15min face to face consultation

Polar Specialist