The world's distance record-holder - a Pole-to-Pole migrant!
Information about 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.
Interesting facts about Arctic Tern
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!
Pictures of Arctic Tern
Highlights where the Arctic Tern can be seen
Ahlstrandodden and Bamsebu
These two sites are at the entrance to the southern arm of Bellsund - Van Keulenfjorden. Both sites, and the area between them, are scattered with remains from the Beluga, the white whale, that was hunted for the blubber and skin. There are piles of bleached bones and upturned wooden boats that were left when the area was abandoned in the 1930’s.
Beluga can be seen along the shore here. If you are lucky to encounter them it is poignant with their bleached bones on the shore.
It is popular site for a landing and to walk across the tundra between the two sites, looking for Arctic flowers, Reindeer, Arctic Foxes, and check out some hunter’s cabins and the remains of fox traps.
Also look out for Purple Sandpipers and Red Phalaropes feeding along the shoreline.
A long narrow island of hard bedrock at the entrance to Van Mijentfjorden, the northern fjord arm of Bellsund. It is popular for a Zodiac cruise around the island and through the narrow Mariasundet, with the strong currents that attract seabirds. There is the chance of landing to explore the geology, but with lots of scouting first to make sure there is not a hidden bear. The surrounding mountains provide some spectacular scenery and some impressive geology. But few cruise ships go further into this deep fjord, preferring to do landings in Bellsund, and to ship cruise into Hornsund.
Arrival at Longyearbyen
The transport hub for Svalbard with the airport. Once just a mining town, it is now involved with tourism and scientific research and has various services, accommodation, shops and cafés, and some interesting museums.
There is also the chance to check out wildlife within town, including Snow Buntings and even reindeer, and to walk along the road through the mudflats to the dog kennels, dodging the Arctic Terns on route. There is an Eider colony next to the kennels and Barnacle Geese and other birds on the mudflats. If you are very lucky, you might see an Ivory Gull near the kennels.
Longyearbyen is the biggest settlement in Svalbard. Seat of the Norwegian administration, it also has the best services and infrastructure in the archipelago. Located deep in the Adventfjord, a sidearm of the Isfjorden (Icefjord), Longyearbyen’s airport can be used all-year round, but its harbor is blocked by ice in winter. Most shops, hotels, restaurants and a hospital are within easy walking distance of the port.
An active Russian mining town on the hillside of Grønfjorden, that has fallen on hard times, and it can look bleak and stark. But it is a great place to walk around with the architecture and there is a hotel, a souvenir shop, a museum, and recently, with more investment, a brewery. Most of the cruises do not visit, but it is easy to see on a clear day sailing in or out of Isfjorden. Is a popular day trip from Longyearbyen, and you could even stay overnight.
Bjørnøya (Bear Island)
Bear Island is considered Svalbard’s southernmost island, roughly half way between Spitsbergen and Norway’s North Cape. Although the last polar bears were seen in 2004, the name goes back to Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz and his visit in 1596.
The island has been used to hunt walrus, for whaling, and even coal mining has taken place. The strategic location on the border of the Norwegian Sea and the Barents Sea has led to a meteorological station being set up by Norway near Gravodden on Bear Island’s north coast. Some two thirds of the island is a relatively flat plain with shallow freshwater lakes and Ramsar Wetland, while the entire island and the surrounding waters are a Nature Reserve.
Bear Island has also been designated an Import Bird Area as it is a staging area for Pink-footed and Barnacle Geese and the steep cliffs south of Sørhamna are home to thousands of breeding seabirds,the area of most interest for a ship cruise, and even a Zodiac cruise on the few occasions the seas is calm.
Disembark in Longyearbyen
Longyearbyen is the biggest settlement in Svalbard. Seat of the Norwegian administration, it also has the best services and infrastructure in the archipelago. Located deep in the Adventfjord, a sidearm of the Isfjorden (Icefjord), Longyearbyen’s airport can be used all-year round, but its harbor is blocked by ice in winter.
Most shops, hotels, restaurants and a hospital are within easy walking distance of the port. One of the most prominent buildings in town is the UNIS center, where several Norwegian universities have joined forces to operate and offer the northernmost higher education to both Norwegian and international students. Adjacent to UNIS, and well worth a visit, is the Svalbard Museum, covering the natural history and exploitation of Svalbard. Remnants of the former mining activity can be seen all around Longyearbyen and even in town.
A range of wildlife can be seen around the town and the mudflats on the road to the dog kennels. There is an Eider colony here and Ivory Gulls can sometimes be seen. If you can dodge the diving Arctic terns, the mudflats attract birds like Barnacle Geese, and a range of waterbirds and shorebirds that are scarce in other parts of Svalbard.
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 fully 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.
Some years the ice edge can end up a long way to the north, enabling a circumnavigation of the whole archipelago, and even to reach remote Kvitøya. Other years, pack ice remains along the northern coast of Nordaustlandet, often caught up among the offshore islands. This prevents a circumnavigation of the archipelago, but the areas of drifting pack ice around and places like and Lagøya can be superb for ship cruising and even Zodiac cruise amongst the pack.
Festningen and Russekeila
There is some great tundra to explore along the flat coast on the SW side of Isfjorden, to the east of Kapp Linne. Festningen, quite close to Barentsburg, is well known for the fossils, including the footprint of a dinosaur in sediments that have been forced by the Earth’s forces into a vertical position. Russekeila is a cultural site from the time the Russian Pomors carried out trapping in this area.
The 14th of July bay and glacier, named by Prince Albert I of Monaco on the Princesse Alice on his oceanographic expeditions to Svalbard from 1898 to 1907.
It is one of the highlights in Krossfjorden, often combining a landing with a Zodiac cruise. Cruising along the impressive glacier front, there are regular calvings with bergs in the bay that attracts birds like kittiwakes. And nearby there are bird cliffs with a colony of Thick-billed Murres (Brünnich’s Guillemot) that also includes Atlantic Puffins. Options for landing (being careful of potential Tsunami waves from calvings) include one of the best spots in the whole of Svalbard for flowers, and even the chance to walk on the side of the glacier.
This is the sound between Edgeøya and Barentsøya, flat topped islands compared to Spitsbergen, with tundra flats and slopes below higher cliffs of hexagonal pillars.
This is the preferred route to Hinlopenstretet, although the eastern end is usually blocked off by ice in the early season. Whatever the conditions, it is a great place to look out for bears from the high vantage of the ship. Bears often rest on the tundra on either shore, just be aware there are plenty of reindeer that the inexperienced can mistake for a bear in the early season with their whitish coats. It is also an area where whale and seal carcasses can drift ashore, attracting bears. With the tundra there is still the slight influence of the gulf stream. But once through the eastern end the ship is in the high Arctic and a very different landscape, dominated by the polar desert and ice caps.
Historical site on SW side of Hornsund with the remains from the days of whaling and overwintering Russian and Norwegian trappers. Gåshamna was also the site of the Swedish/Russian Arc of Meridian Expedition from 1898 to 1902, one of the first international research expeditions in the Arctic. In addition to the cultural remains, there is beautiful tundra with the Arctic flora.
Popular landing in Hornsund with spectacular scenery including towering bird cliffs with thousands of breeding Black-legged Kittiwakes and Brünnich’s Guillemots and all the noise (gnål means “nagging” in Norwegian), that attracts Arctic Foxes at the base of the cliff. Geese and reindeer also occur.
The sound between Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet in the high Arctic, in contrast to the milder coast of western Spitsbergen. Early in the season it is locked in ice that slowly clears from the south.
The northern end can be blocked by the pack for a while, varying from season to season. Once open, it enables circumnavigation of Spitsbergen, although ice can still drift in on strong currents and block Hinlopenstretet. When Hinlopenstretet is open, but the northern end is still blocked, ships will come into the area, typically sailing along Freemansundet between Edgeøya and Barentsøya, then return.
The area is superb for Zodiac cruises and landings, and can be superb even as a ship cruise. There are plenty of seabirds, the sound can be good for whales, there are various fjords to explore, like the surprisingly arid and desert-like Wahlenbergfjorden, various island groups to explore, like Wahlbergøya, and the chance to experience what is described as the polar desert. Three locations stand out as highlights in whole of Svalbard, the ice cliff Bråsvellbreen, the Walrus Haul out at Torellneset , and the bird cliff at Alkefjellet.
The fjords in the inner part of Hornsund is superb to explore by ship with the spectacular rugged scenery, including the distinctive and towering peak known as Hornsundtind. The geology is impressive, and make sure to look out for birds, seals, and even Polar bears.
Deeper in the Fjord, there is the impressive and long glacial front of Hornbreen, and there are glacial fronts in Burgerbutka to the north, and Samarinvågen to the south. These locations are also excellent for Zodiac cruising to get close to the glacial fronts (at a safe distance) and look for wildlife.
Amongst the ice floes is a great place to look for Ringed Seals, Bearded Seals, and the Ivory Gull.
Kongsvegen and Kongsbreen
The inner part of Kongsfjorden is popular for ship cruising and especially Zodiac cruising with the mountain scenery, some impressive glacier fronts, and the chance to explore the ice floes looking for wildlife, and the chance of a bear.
Also keep a look out for Long tailed Jaegers, one of the few places they breed in Svlbard is on the island of Ny London in the middle of Kongsford. A number of lakes and pools in the region can attract a range of waterbirds.
The two split fjords that form the inner part of Krossfjorden are popular for ship cruising and Zodiac cruising to enjoy the scenery, the glacier fronts, and to look out for wildlife and the chance of a bear.
There are also several options for landings including Möllerhamna, with a hunter’s cabin painted orange that is known the ‘Lloyds Hotel’. Many cruise ships have visited the site for over 100 years, leaving behind mementoes like signs, graffiti (no longer allowed), and a bar. Sigenhamna is another location where there was a German weather station in World War II.
Translating as ‘White Island’, located in the extreme NE of Svalbard it is both a bleak and a beautiful location with most of the island covered by an ice cap, with one rocky peninsula at the eastern end.
Few cruise ships get here, and there are years when it remains in the grip of the pack ice the whole season. It is also the location where the remains of Andrée and his two companions were found, along with the journal, and a tin box containing photographic films. They set off on their ill-fate balloon expedition to the North Pole in 1897, then disappeared, a mystery for decades until their remains were found on Kvitøya, 33 years later in 1930, an indication of the remoteness of the island and the scarcity of vessels that sailed through the area or landed. With a memorial to the expedition, and just to step ashore, it is a unique landing. But this is often unlikely with changing weather conditions, where the fog can come in quickly, and the fact that that bears are often found here. It is still a great location for a Zodiac cruise, weather permitting, to explore the rocky eastern end, look out for Walrus and bears, and pause to think of the fate of Andrée.
This island, and the associated smaller islands, is off the NW coast of Nordaustlandet. Lågøya means ‘low island’, and it is the site of a Walrus haul out and is great for bird life, with the chance of Sabine’s Gulls that are attracted to the lagoons on the island.
Part of the island is sea¬so¬nal¬ly pro¬tec-ted and off limits and landings are often thwarted by the presence of a bear, or bears. It is an area where there can be loose pack ice when the pack, further to the east, is still too compact to sail though. It means this location very popular for Zodiac cruising with the wildlife that can be encountered. There is at least one old hunter’s cabin on the island, but conditions were particularly harsh on Lågøya, some perishing on the island, making hunters reticent of over wintering here.
One of the most spectacular and most photographed fjords in Svalbard, and with all the pointed peaks it can be understood how Spitsbergen got its name. Very popular for the landing at Gravneset, with the whaler’s graveyard it is named after, with the remains of the blubber ovens from the whaling days.
The tundra is also great for plants and wildlife, from geese to Arctic Terns. Zodiac cruising is a great way to explore the rest of the fjord and to look out for wildlife that includes a huge Little Auk colony in the scree on the northern side (some quite close to the shore), and to look out for seals. As well as Ringed Seals and Bearded Seals there is a spot with Harbour Seals (the most northerly in the World?), and a site where Walrus haul on a sandy beach at the entrance of the fjord to the west of Gravneset. The Waggonwaybreen glacier has been retreating and ships can get quite close to witness carvings, a floating platform on the part of the open fjord that was covered by the glacier just a few years ago. Staff will always be on the lookout for bears that can turn up here.
The World’s northernmost year-round community and a site of cultural importance with layers of history. Originally it was a remote coal mining town, known as Kings Bay, until a serious accident in 1962.
The location meant King’s Bay was the starting point of various historical attempts to reach the North Pole, and the mast for Nobile’s airships can still be seen. Today it is a centre for international Arctic research, with traditional houses of when it was King’s Bay alongside modern bases for various countries. It is great to walk around the town and tourism also plays a role and ships can come alongside at the dock (one of the few docks apart from Longyearbyen and Barentsburg in Svalbard). There are shops, a museum, and the most northerly post office in the World. It is also great for birds, including Barnacle Geese (perhaps the most well studied wild geese in the World), Red-throated Loons on the lake, and the chance of an Ivory Gull by the dog kennels.
Pleneau Island is one of the less-visited Antarctic visitor sites but is well worth it. First mapped in 1903 by the French Charcot expedition, it’s a beautiful location that overlooks what’s known as an “iceberg graveyard”, with a Zodiac cruise often favoured over a landing (see fascinating facts). Whether viewed from the island itself or from a Zodiac, there are always stunning ‘bergs to photograph here.
The island itself is less than a mile long and lies just off Hovgaard Island in the Wilhelm Archipelago. Pleneau is home to terns, and your expert Antarctic guides will make sure that you avoid disturbing them in the breeding season.
The permanent ice cap at the top of the island looks stunning, but it’s riddled with crevasses and not safe to walk on.
The northern end of the island hosts a breeding colony of Antarctic Shags, and you will almost certainly see penguins and seals among the stunning icebergs.
This location is outside Isfjorden on the long island of Prins Karls Foreland, but is within the reach of day trips from Longyearbyen, on a long boat ride. It is known for the Walrus haul out, one of the few relatively close to Longyearbyen, and is popular as a landing for cruise ships. It is a great location to experience a haul out, and they are so used to people, individuals swimming along the shore sometimes come for a closer look! The beaches are covered in logs that have drifted all the way across the Arctic Ocean from Siberia, just watch out for Arctic Terns. The lagoon to the rear can be great for Purple Sandpipers and Red Phalaropes.
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.
This Russian mining town that used to be the largest settlement in Svalbard. Abandoned in 1998, it must have been impressive in the 1970s and 1980s, with wide avenues and lawns, Soviet architecture, and lots of families. Today it is a very eerie and atmospheric, with the mining facilities falling apart over quite a large area, on the flats and the hills above the town. There are the various Soviet era structures and artwork, including the school playground, the cultural center, the food hall, and the most northerly swimming pool in the World (dry now) and bust of Lenin. There is a hotel, still open, with a bar that you can visit. But you need to go with someone with a rifle, since bears do roam through town! It is also a good place to see Arctic Fox, and one of the most reliable places to see the Ptarmigan, the ‘Arctic’ grouse. The name comes from the shape of the mountain behind the town, which adds to the character of the place.
A series of hard granite islands that translates as seven islands, islands that are to the north of Nordaustlandet. Being the furthest north in the whole of Svalbard, the islands can remain in the pack ice for much of the year.
Walrus can be seen throughout the area, with at least one popular landing at a haul out. There are plenty of seabirds, and the chance of a bear resting somewhere on one of the islands, sometimes several bears, understandable with the location. With the myriad of islands it is very popular to explore by Zodiac and the area also has important ties to polar exploration. Many of the locations were named after the English North Pole expeditions led by Phipps (1773) and Parry (1827), including Neslonøya, after a certain young midshipman! Not that long ago the whole area could be trapped in ice throughout the year and just to the east was the area where Nobile’ airship, the Italia, crashed onto the ice, with a huge rescue effort.
Remains of a gypsum mine below spectacular and beautiful cliffs. In addition to the cultural remains, including parts of a railway and a barge, it has an interesting flora due to the ‘mild’ location, deep inside Isfjorden.
Nearby cliffs, which go right down to the sea, are eroded into impressive shapes, and can be a great place to explore offshore in a Zodiac, the chance to see various seabirds that breed on the cliffs, with kittiwakes and four auk species including Puffins. It is a popular site for a combined landing and Zodiac cruise, and a ‘sail’ past on boats out from Longyearbyen that are visiting Pyramiden.
South Shetland Islands
The South Shetland Islands are a group of rocky islands only about 75 miles north of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Several countries have research stations on the islands, with most being found on the largest island, King George Island. It’s here, at the Chilean Base Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva, that there is a 4000ft runway that sees over 200 flights a year bringing people and supplies to and from the Islands and wider Antarctica.
Most of the islands are covered in ice for much of the year, but they are still home to large populations of Elephant and fur seals, as well as huge numbers of penguins and Antarctic sea birds, being the most diverse area in the whole 'peninsula' region. Frequent encounters here include gentoo, chinstrap (often one of the key species for landings in the South Shetlands), a few Adélie penguins colonies, and the odd Macaroni penguin pair or lone bird. Also Weddell, crabeater, and leopard seals, as well as and orca, humpback, and minke whales, with fin whales, and even southern bottlenose Whales, see on the approach close to the drop off to deeper waters.
Black-browed Albatross do not breed but can be seen, usually offshore in the Southern ocean, but also in the Bransfield Strait.
This large fjord, and the associated Bockfjorden and Liefdefjorden in northern Spitsbergen, becomes accessible as the pack retreats. It is great for ship cruising, enjoying the scenery, and to look out for bears along the extensive coastline.
Flexibility is key with the chance of bears and changing weather conditions, but with plenty of choices in this large fjord complex. Zodiac cruises are popular, including Monacobreen glacier at the end of Liefdelfjorden, and the islands of Andøyane, a great area for a range of birds, including King Eider. There are also options for landings. The large and impressive wooden hut at Mushamna on the NE side of Woodfjorden. The small hunter’s cabin known as the Texas Bar in Liefdefjorden. The ‘thermal spring’ at Jotunkjeldane in Bockfjorden.
Our trips to spot the Arctic Tern