Sooty tern (Sterna fuscata) rookeries are scattered throughout the tropical oceans. When not nesting, individuals wander great distances across open seas, but, like many other seabirds, they tend to be site-faithful to nesting locales in successive years. Here we examine the matrilineal history of sooty terns on a global scale. Assayed colonies within an ocean are poorly differentiated in mitochondrial DNA sequence, a result indicating tight historical ties. However, a shallow genealogical partition distinguishes Atlantic from Indo-Pacific rookeries. Phylogeographic patterns in the sooty tern are compared to those in other colonially nesting seabirds, as well as in the green turtle (Chelonia mydas), an analogue of tropical seabirds in some salient aspects of natural history. Phylogeographic structure within an ocean is normally weak in seabirds, unlike the pronounced matrilineal structure in green turtles. However, the phylogeographic partition between Atlantic and Indo-Pacific rookeries in sooty terns mirrors, albeit in shallower evolutionary time, the major matrilineal subdivision in green turtles. Thus, global geology has apparently influenced historical gene movements in these two circumtropical species.