One of the many decisions you’ll have to make when planning your Antarctica voyage: Does ship size really matter? In a word, yes. The choices may seem overwhelming, so before you spend time researching all the options, let’s learn a little about ship size and whether it will make a real difference to your Antarctic experience.

The Magic Number Is 100

In my opinion, and based largely on experience, ships with 100 or fewer passengers are going to offer the best all-around experience. The main reason is that only 100 passengers from any ship sailing in Antarctica are allowed ashore at any given time. So, if you have 100 on board, you can all be on shore at the same time.

If you get up to 200 or more people onboard, your time onshore will be shortened as only 100 may be on shore at a time. And how long will you wait? That all depends on how long your on-shore peers stay. Generally, a person will be assigned to a group number; the size of which amounts to one Zodiac's capacity. For each landing, the order of the group departures will change. For instance, if you were first on shore in the morning, your group will be second on shore in the afternoon. This cycle continues each day, so the next day you'll depart third and fourth, for respective landings. On days when you're seventh or eighth, you spend a lot of time on board waiting your turn. But who wants to cut short their available time to snowshoe right up to a chinstrap penguin colony? Going from a three-hour excursion to a mere 90 minutes is huge. Who knows what you’ll miss with those other 90 minutes on the White Continent! Here are some of the activities you can do while in Antarctica, many of which depend on the ship, its size, and available time off the ship.

Some ships of up to 200 passengers have recognized that this is a huge detriment to the Antarctic experience and offer combinations of 100 guests on land and 100 on a Zodiac tour - then switch. In this case, typically the shore visits are longer but really depends on how long people stay on shore.

What If I Get Seasick?

The larger ships do have the advantage over the smaller vessels when it comes to stability. While the Drake Passage has a mind of its own and there is only so much stabilizers can do, your experience on a larger, more stable and powerful ship is likely to be less tumultuous than a smaller one when crossing the Drake. If you are prone to seasickness, but really prefer a smaller ship, consider a fly/cruise option that avoids the roughest section of the Drake Passage.  

Capacity Counts

When you are comparing ship sizes, look at both the number of passengers and the capacity of the ship. For example, a 380-passenger ship that takes only 200 at a time will have more stability and more space, and more concurrent seating at the restaurant - as opposed to a 200-passenger ship filled to capacity.

And, there’s the little fact that these ships are, simply, bigger. It’s nice to be able to find a quiet spot once in awhile, away from other passengers, to enjoy the solitude of the destination and watch for whales or read a book. 

The following have a capacity of over 200, but contain 200 or fewer passengers when sailing in the Antarctic polar regions: MS Fram (Hurtigruten); Scenic Eclipse (Scenic), Silver Cloud and Silver Wind (Silver Seas).

What If I Want to See South Georgia?

Another key point to keep in mind when researching ships and sizes is that size will play a role in where you go. Most larger ships (with capacities over 200) are suited to Antarctica-only itineraries. Smaller ships will be able to visit the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia, therefore, opening up your wildlife viewing to open water and land. You’ll be able to look for orca and leopard seals and penguin colonies of up to 300,000 at Salisbury Plain and St. Andrew’s Bay. 

I hope this has helped make some sense of the myriad options and sizes that are out there for Antarctica voyages. We can review the list of ship choices and what their individual capacity and typical passenger count is. Let’s chat about what feels right for you.