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Pilgrimage to Scapa Flow

The Scapa Flow Pilgrimage
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Scapa Flow, widely regarded as one of the world’s best wreck-diving sites, should be on every diver’s hit-list, as dedicated fan MARK EVANS reports

Arriving at the bottom of the shotline, which was festooned with gigantic plumose anemones, the side of the silt-covered battleship dropped away into darkness in front of us. Switching on our torches, we descended into the gloom, watching the metres rise steadily on our dive-computers until the seabed loomed into view at 38m.

What looked like a cave opened ominously before us, and we ventured in carefully, keeping our movements as gentle as possible to avoid causing a silt explosion. 

Scapa Flow
Diving in Scapa Flow

A wall of steel rose up, and after a couple of moments our narcosis-addled brains realised that this was the side of an upturned main gun-turret.

As we headed left towards the bow of the Kronprinz Wilhelm, the barrel protruded from the turret and just seemed to go on forever. Even half-buried in the silt, the diameter of the barrel looked enormous, and we took some photographs with divers alongside to show how large these 12in monsters really were.

Throughout all of this, I tried not to think that I was underneath an upturned, 26,000-tonne German battleship that had been on the seabed for 97 years…

Scapa Flow

The virtually landlocked natural harbour that is Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands is one of those places that many divers have heard of and long to visit, but relatively few experience. This is a huge shame, because this hotspot should be on the hit-list of every diver.

I have made several pilgrimages to the very northern tip of Scotland to explore this wreck-diving Mecca, which is right up there with Truk Lagoon and Bikini Atoll, thanks to the remains of monstrous German warships from World War One lying on the seabed.

There are various reasons why this place is not jam-packed with thousands of divers. The first is that it is a long old trip from just about anywhere in the UK and, when costs end up rivalling those of a Red Sea liveaboard, often the tropical destination wins hands down.

Second, Scapa has an undeserved reputation for being deep, cold, dark, dangerous and suitable only for highly trained techies, whereas in fact any Advanced Open Water Diver comfortable in a drysuit and with their Deep Speciality is more than qualified enough to dive the main wrecks (there are also plenty of sites suitable for Open Water Divers). 

Exploring the Scapa Flow
Colourful waters where the North Sea meets the Atlantic

In fact, on previous trips I have taken divers up to Scapa who had never dived in UK seas before – only at inland sites – and they went on every dive that the more experienced divers in the party did.

As for the cost – yes, it is relatively expensive by UK standards once you factor in fuel costs, ferry charges, accommodation, boat charter, nitrox fills and food and drink, but the diving available is like nowhere else on the planet. Believe me, you might think the one visit will be enough to “tick the box”, but most people I know well and truly catch the Scapa bug and can’t wait to go back.

The High Seas Fleet

Scapa Flow probably wouldn’t factor on any “must-dive” list if it wasn’t for the actions of a certain Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter. He was commander of the German Imperial Navy’s High Seas Fleet, which was interned in the Flow at the end of WW1 with weapons disarmed and only skeleton crews left on duty.

On midsummer’s day, 21 June, 1919, he mistakenly believed that hostilities were about to resume and gave the signal to scuttle the entire fleet of 74 warships, comprising five battlecruisers, 11 battleships, eight cruisers and 50 destroyers.

Exploring the Scapa Flow
So many wrecks to explore in Scapa Flow

A total of 52 of the great ships sank beneath the surface, and the remaining 22 were beached or prevented from being sunk by Royal Navy boarding parties. Now, with all that intact metal on the seabed, including the 200m battlecruisers Seydlitz, Moltke, Von Der Tann, Derfflinger and Hindenburg, you can imagine what sort of scene wreck-divers can witness under water there today. 

Right? Wrong. Sadly for divers, what followed from the early 1920s right up to 1946 was what is still the greatest marine salvage operation in history.

The firm of Cox and Danks raised, towed and dismantled no fewer than 45 of the sunken vessels, and the remaining seven – battleships Konig, Kronprinz Wilhelm and Markgraf, cruisers Dresden, Coln and Karlsruhe, and mine-layer Brummer – were left in various states of disrepair after some further salvage and blasting work by other parties.

Thankfully, German craftsmanship back then was as good as it is now, and so while the Karlsruhe, Konig and, to a lesser extent, the Brummer are deteriorating rapidly from a recognisable “ship-shape”, the other ships – in particular the Coln – are holding up pretty well after more than 100 years under water.

You can still see the teak decking, 5.7in deck-guns, capstans, bollards, armoured conning-towers and much more on the cruisers, and the big 12in turrets, massive rudders and a last-remaining impressive bow across the three battleships.

The inhabitants of the Scapa Flow
There is plenty of growth on the metalwork

Coated with a thick layer of silt and draped with sponges, plumose anemones and dead man’s fingers, it can sometimes be hard to make sense of certain objects, but get your brain orientated as the ship lies – on its side for the cruisers and mine-layer, upside down for the battleships – and you can soon build up a picture of what it must have looked like pre-sinking.

The sheer size of these shipwrecks is daunting, but concentrate on one area – bow to midships, for example – and you will be able to enjoy what they have to offer.

Diving the Flow

Charter-boats operating in Scapa Flow range from large fishing boats-cum-liveaboards to smaller day-boats, and most cater for everyone from raw novices making their first foray into the Flow to seasoned techies equipped with CCRs, sling-tanks and other nifty paraphernalia. On my last trip we dived from the purpose-built mv Huskyan, expertly skippered by Emily Turton (see below).

We had a mixed group of CCR, twinset and single-cylinder divers on board, and all agreed that they wanted to concentrate on the seven German warships.

Although this meant missing out on diving the purpose-sunk blockships, or the WW2 vessel F2, this is the best way to get the most out of the “main event” – doing two deeper dives a day for six days enables you to get two hits on most of the German wrecks and really get a feel for them.

Diving the German Fleet
Luxuriant anemone growth

Diving the German fleet is a doddle. The skipper tells you when you are 15 minutes out from the site and you get into your kit. Once over the wreck, you stand near the exit-point and the skipper will motor close to the buoys marking the shotline. On their command, you leap into the water, head over to the line and then make your descent to the wreck. 

Once on the wreck you can either go off exploring and then just fire up a DSMB for your ascent, or make a circular route and use the shotline for reference on the ascent. There is generally not too much current on the Big Seven, and visibility is generally anywhere from 3-9m. We were blessed with good vis of 7 or 8m plus on virtually every German wreck-dive during our week in May. You’re OK unless you hit the dreaded plankton bloom.

Conclusion

Scapa Flow deserves its reputation as one of the best wreck-diving locations in the world – where else can you dive seven WW1 German warships in depths of less than 46m? – and don’t be put off by the macho bull often heard when people talk about diving in the Orkneys. 

The Scapa Flow Wreck
Light on the wreck

To get the most out of the German wrecks, ensure that you are comfortable in your drysuit, don’t mind dropping down shotlines in relatively low vis and have that Deep Speciality.

The diving isn’t hard, but you do need to treat the wrecks with respect. They might still be in remarkable shape but they are covered in a fine layer of silt, and certain parts are collapsing, so undertake any penetration only if you are fully trained and have the appropriate equipment to do so.

Having dived the High Seas Fleet many times in the past 25-odd years, I did notice some major changes to certain wrecks last time around. The cruiser Dresden, for instance, offers a whole new dive experience around the bow section, as a huge area of the decking is peeling away and is now almost down to seabed level, revealing previously unseen rooms, passageways and ladders.

The mine-layer Brummer is faring even worse, with various areas now becoming increasingly unstable. At the bow, huge sections of the forward hull have now rusted away, leaving just the scythe-like bow intact.

The Dresden and the Brummer in particular might be slowly succumbing but the Coln still looked pretty much the same as when I last dived it, and I even got to see some stuff I had never spotted before, thanks to skipper Emily’s ultra-detailed briefings. 

Into the Depths
Big guns in Scapa

Dropping to 37m on the Kronprinz Wilhelm and venturing beneath its vast hull to see the barrels on its main gun-turrets I had a serious case of déjà vu, so familiar was the scene.

Long-time Scapa divers will still find much to keep them entertained, and the slow decline of the shipwrecks is continually opening up new areas for exploration, while Scapa virgins will just be blown away by the sheer size of the vessels. 

The shipwrecks offer a multitude of subjects for avid photographers, from the main gun-turrets and deck-guns to conning-towers, windlasses, anchors, torpedoes and, of course, the vessels themselves – especially their bows and sterns.

Getting to the Orkneys

You can drive all the way up to Scrabster on the northernmost tip of mainland Scotland and then catch a ferry to Stromness, from where all the dive-charters operate. However, this involves a lengthy drive, the last section of which is on the A9 which, however scenic, is not the quickest road!

You can drive to Aberdeen and catch a ferry with Northlink Ferries that sails up to Kirkwall, from where it is only a 20-minute drive to Stromness. The ferry from Aberdeen to Kirkwall takes some six hours but you can relax, enjoy some food and even watch a movie.

Or fly to Aberdeen and get a hopper flight to Kirkwall, though be warned that flights are not cheap and if you decide to take your own kit, excess baggage fees could get enormous!

The Huskyan

Huskyan is a purpose-built steel and aluminium dive-boat with a square stern to maximise space for the dive-deck, a handy crane to assist with loading and unloading kit, twin engines for super manoeuvrability and redundancy, a large diver-lift for easy water exit, and a wet changing area fitted out with drysuit hangers, and hooks for gloves and hoods.

Inside, divers are treated to 2m+ of headroom throughout and what can only be described as a luxury interior, which includes a massive galley serving up delicious home-made grub between deeper dives and on the way back to the harbour at the end of the day. There is a spacious dining/sitting/briefing area, and downstairs a dry changing-room with multiple lockers.

Skipper Emily Turton’s briefings are renowned, because she has an intimate knowledge of the wrecks through diving them herself extensively, and is able to “draw” on the ADUS 3D scans and her own sketches of the sites, displayed on large flatscreen TVs.

Emily can offer the complete diving-and-accommodation package, with superb self-catering facilities available in Number 15, an impeccably presented house with multiple bedrooms/ bathrooms, massive kitchen, wi-fi, flatscreen TV and more.

Photographs by Mark Evans and Jason Brown

Also on Divernet: Scapa Flow 100: History & Wrecks, Above 18m: Wrecks Of Churchill Barrier II, Wreck Tour 122: The Karlsruhe, Iconic Scapa Flow Wrecks Go Cheap

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