When I first went to Antarctica almost 20 years ago, the communications question was easy: call from the departure port and wait until the voyage is over before calling again. A telephone call from the ship on the INMARSAT phone was at least $15 per minute. Shipboard internet was virtually impossible. This has changed a lot – and may well be different by the time you read this.
- For Australians, at least, roaming on your mobile in Argentina and Chile is expensive. Data is very expensive. But wifi is widespread so use it (and Skype) rather than your mobile/cellular phone.
- After sailing from Ushuaia you’ll have a phone signal for at least 30 minutes – but this may also be when the lifeboat drill is held.
- About 2-3 hours after leaving Ushuaia the ship will pass by Puerto Williams, a small settlement on the Chilean side of the Beagle Channel. It has a good mobile signal that will work for most of an hour, if you have access to Chilean roaming.
- There’s no mobile telephone signal along the Antarctic Peninsula though the bases have good telephone and internet links to the outside world for their own staff. However, if your ship goes into Maxwell Bay on King George Island in the South Shetland Islands you’ll find you have a mobile signal from the Chilean Eduardo Frei Base. (Many discover this when the phone they have been using solely as an alarm clock bursts back to life with messages.) The signal does not extend beyond the entrance to the bay.
- Check with your voyage operator but just about all vessels going to Antarctica offer at least a basic email service and satellite phone service on board. Not all provide full internet and, as the signal is over the satellite network it’s not fast and is quite expensive, though that varies from one ship to the next. However, it’s almost certainly cheaper than the roaming rate on your mobile phone in this part of the world.
- Technology-dependant passengers sometimes buy or hire their own satellite phone, with or without data capabilities. This may require you to stand outside in the cold but you will have connection on your own terms.
- The Antarctic Peninsula, and the island of South Georgia, is mountainous and when your ship is deep in a bay or fiord there will be no outside signal at all. This doesn’t happen very often on a voyage but it can be overnight.
- If you are going to South America, Ushuaia and Antarctica to get away from the world you may not want any communication at all. Then you just have one choice to make: what to do in an emergency? Some don’t leave any contact numbers to the ship and will deal with any crisis at the end of the voyage. Others leave a number to call in emergencies only and then can rest assured that, when there’s no phone call, there’s no significant problem at home.
- Sometimes, on the last full day of the voyage, telephone and internet accounts may be turned off to prepare final accounts. If you have something essential happening, don’t leave it until then – or talk to the ship’s hotel manager in advance.
- When you are at the end of the voyage and heading back up the Beagle Channel there will almost certainly be messages, texts, emails and missed calls. Unless you have an unlimited budget you’ll be better off waiting until you can get on-line in Ushuaia again. So maybe it’s best to leave the phone off or just turn it on to call the person who matters most.
About the author: David McGonigal has been to Antarctica over 100 times as Expedition Leader, expert lecturer and expedition photographer. He left Antarctica last February and will be back there again this November.