Ship Choices

Everything in the table is based on IAATO lists of approved vessels, the ship's own website, reviews by others and my personal experience and research.

If you have travelled with or know more about one of these vessels, then please chip in with thoughts and I'll update the table! If I've missed any ships too then please get in touch.

Ship Name Max guests Ice Rating Luxury Level Normal Operator Comments
Akademik Ioffe 96 1a Low One Ocean Ex-Soviet research vessel. Most definitely not used for spying. Twin of the Vavilov. Working scientific vessel and outfitted accordingly. Seems very popular with bird watchers
Akademik Vavilov 92 1a Low One Ocean Ex-Soviet research vessel. Most definitely not used for spying. Twin of the Ioffe. Working scientific vessel and outfitted accordingly. Seems very popular with bird watchers and does a lot of off the beaten track and specialist trips. Has a large panoramic lounge.
Bark Europa 44 n/a low Bark Europa Sailing ship built in 1911. Looks epic. Seriously, go google pictures. Probably not for the faint of heart. You will be needed as sailing crew to join in with watches and help run the ship. Not properly ice rated but shallow draft gives access to inlets and bays others have no hope of reaching.
Bremen 155 1a+ Super Hapag Lloyd Luxury all round and one of the few ships that can cater for wheelchair users, albeit not on zodiac landings. Seems more focussed on the shipboard side of things than the landing part
Hanseatic 175 1a+ Super Hapag Lloyd Luxury all round and one of the few ships that can cater for wheelchair users, albeit not on zodiac landings. Seems more focussed on the shipboard side of things than the landing part
Corinthian 98 none Super Grand Circle All suite ship super luxury ship with a small passenger complement giving more time aboard. However no official ice class and the ship has a history of issues under her previous name - Clelia II. Just transferred to new owners so hopefully more lucky.
Expedition 132 1b Medium G Adventures Former Danish car ferry but very well converted. Has a photographer and musician in residence programme. Many PhDs among expedition staff. Personal experience of staff going above and beyond to get the landings. Approx 3hrs on shore per landing and at least two landings/operations per day. Ship is comfortable, hotel staff excellent and food plentiful.
Fram 220 1b High Hurtigruten May be large, but operates as standard expedition ship. Run by Norwegians who are pretty good at ice. Given size, shore landing time is limited and may be waiting involved but plenty to see on board while you wait. Wheelchair accessible.
L'Austral
Le Boreal
Le Lyrial
264 1c Super Ponant Described as mega-yachts, these three ships are triplets. Modern and sleek. Still offer full zodiac programme with naturalists on board. Reports of approx 1.5hrs on shore per landing
National Geographic Explorer 148 1a+ Super Lindblad World renowned expedition team, luxury ship with a very strong focus on the wildlife experience too. Reflected in the prices. American run and staffed. Often has a guest NatGeo photographer on board. Inflatable kayaks open to all guests rather than a full kayak programme. Has a remote operated sub.
National Geographic Orion 102 1a Super Lindblad World renowned expedition team, luxury ship with a very strong focus on the wildlife experience too. Reflected in the prices. Has a submarine for underwater photography. I know, how cool is that?
Ocean Diamond 189 1d Super Quark V well regarded expedition team offering a full programme on a luxury ship, albeit restricted due to passenger numbers. Faster ship may get you across the Drake more quickly for extra landings but due to size there will be rotations on-shore.
Ocean Endeavour 199 1b Medium Quark V well regarded expedition team offering a full programme on a midrange ship, albeit restricted due to passenger numbers. There will be waiting for shore rotations.
Sea Adventurer 122 1a Medium Quark V well regarded expedition team and comfortable ship. Size, ice rating and a determined team may achieve more than 3 landings a day
Ocean Nova 68 1b Low Antarctica XXI More basic ship just been taken over by AntarcticaXXI. Operated entirely with fly-cruise option. Small size will get you more landings and a panoramic top deck. Be aware of potential for delays when flying.
Sea Explorer 71 1c High Antarctica XXI Just been taken over by AntarcticaXXI. Operated entirely with fly-cruise option. Small size will get you more landings and running at half capacity to increase space but be aware of potential for delays when flying
Ortelius 116 1a Low Oceanwide Ex-Soviet research vessel. Most definitely not used for spying. Ship is simply a mode of transport, aim is to spend as much time on shore as possible.
Plancius 116 1a Low Oceanwide Ex-Dutch research vessel. Ship is simply a mode of transport, aim is to spend as much time on shore as possible
Polar Pioneer 54 1a Low Aurora Expeditions Finnish built for Soviet research purposes. Basic accommodations but it's all about the small size getting you more time on land, and with only 54 passengers, that's going to be among the highest in the bunch.
Sea Spirit 112 1d High Poseidon All Suite ship but not at the modern ultra level of luxury. Run by a Russian operator who has previously specialised in ice-breaker trips to the North Pole. First Antarctic season is 2015.
Seabourn Quest 450 n/a Super Seabourn As close to a true cruise ship as you can get and still make (some) landings. Has no ice rating so worth keeping in mind if travelling in the early season. Super duper luxury, dress code for dinner no jeans after 6pm style ship. Some suites are wheelchair accessible. Definitely more about the on board experience than the shore one. One landing per day scheduled with about 6 hours to complete each cycle - doing the maths this gets you about an hour on shore per day. Potential sites limited to those that can cope with a ship of this size.
Silver Explorer 132 1a Super Silversea The ship looks fabulous but most of what I came away from researching this was that it offers butler service to your suite. Enough said.
Ushuaia 88 1c Low Antarpply Argentinean run ship. Pretty basic accommodations and food and often chartered by groups. Probably the cheapest option out there for the lowest cabin classes but gets good reviews if you just want to get to Antarctica with no frills. Expedition team seems good and its size will get you lots of time on land.

A more in depth explanation of some of the options above:

Ship Options   Comments
Ship Size 300+ Fewer to no landings but potentially more stable and more likely to be part of a traditional cruise so you get stops elsewhere South America. Can't access certain spots due to size as it would take too long to get 300 people ashore, but good if you're not planning on leaving the ship frequently and just want to admire scenery. Ships with over 500 passengers cannot land anywhere.
150-300 Landings will be in rotation as only 100 people are allowed to be on land at any one time so possibly less time on shore. Lectures as with a typical expedition and zodiac excursions to shore.
100-150 Medium expedition ship, everyone can be on shore at once due to kayakers or those who choose not to leave the ship - most common class and widest variation in luxury levels
less than 100 Most time on land as everyone on board can be ashore at once and quicker to disembark fewer numbers of people. 
Sailing Usually less than 20 people on board and an attitude of everyone mucks in. Ice rating is lower or non-existant but can access much shallower and smaller bays and inlets.
Level of luxury Super Double beds, suites, balconies, room steward, TV, drinks included, better quality food - more like a traditional cruise, newer ships - may skew to older passengers
High Nicely appointed, lots of rooms with double beds, usually slightly older ships and heavy on the wood fittings
Medium Combination of cabins with bunks and beds, cheerful and older ships, less included - three star hotel - excellent service but not luxury. Summer camp for adults.
Low Higher presence of bunks, shared facilities and inside cabins, older and more spartan ships, fewer dining options and less frills - university dorms/youth hostel - for those who are less concerned with the accommodation as it's all about the time off the ship. Commonly Russian ex-"research" vessels.
Cabin facilities en-suite No walking down the corridor or sharing with another cabin.
window Rectangular. Glass. Hopefully you have seen a window before.
porthole Round traditional ship's porthole, relatively small and mostly on lower decks. Good for making you feel like you're in a washing machine during sea crossings.
balcony Does what it says on the tin.
inside cabin No view of the outside. Will definitely reduce your chances of spotting icebergs bigger than the ship, but usually with a lower price to compensate.
Ice rating icebreaker Unless you hit rock you can power on through it
1a not an icebreaker but designed and built for polar waters and can handle ice that is 0.8m thick
1b Can handle polar waters well - usually a retrofitted ship with a previous life elsewhere. Can handle ice that is 0.6m thick
1c Ice strengthened and handles ice of 0.4m thick
1d Light ice conditions only, not an official ice class.