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ScapaFlow

Scapa Flow? What's that? came back the response. I was trying to get members of my new dive club, Thalassa in Braine l'Alleud, Belgium, interested in doing some different diving from the regular quarry diving and warm water trips, so I was proposing something that half of them had never heard of before. Scapa Flow was the principal naval base for the British Fleet during both the First and Second World Wars. Located in the Orkney Islands at the extreme North of Scotland, it is a pretty remote place. Even being this remote it has become a bye-word for wreck diving and is host to 7 German capital ships of the First World War and many other war casualties of the British fleet. The stars are the 4 light cruisers of 5,500 tons, the SMS Karlsruhe, SMS Koln, SMS Brummer and the SMS Dresden, along with 3 massive battleships of around 25,500 tons each, the SMS Markgraf, the SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm, and the SMS Konig. All of these ships lie in easily divable depths, the deepest being at 46metres, and are in areas that don't have large tidal currents, so they make excellent dives.

The history of Scapa Flow as a naval base goes back to the start of the First World War when it became home to the British Home Fleet. From here the German fleet was kept penned up, and from Scapa Flow the British fleet left and returned after the indecisive battle of Jutland. At the end of the war the terms of the armistice required that the German High Seas Fleet be interned in a neutral port, however no neutral port would take it, so it ended up being interned in Scapa flow. For one year it lay disarmed with a skeleton German crew. At the end of this year on the 21st of June 1919 Rear-Admiral Ludvig von Reuter, the commander of the German Fleet took it upon himself to order the scuttling of the fleet rather than see it fall into the hands of the allies as war reparations. What the British saw at the time as a dastardly crime, was a gift for future generations of divers. 74 ships were sunk that day, and over the next 27 years all but 7 of them were raised for scrap. The remaining ships being too deep to lift economically were left on the bottom.

We left Brussels on a British Midland flight to Edinburgh, and then drove the 425 Km to the very North of Scotland to take a ferry to the Orkney Islands. Arriving late and tired we discovered that dinner finished early in Orkney but managed to find someone to serve us at the late hour of 21.00! Rested the next morning we joined our boat the MV Halton a former fishing boat, built in 1973 in Denmark and after introductions to our skipper Bob Anderson and sorting out our weights and tanks we motored out for the 1 hour trip to the wreck sites., taking in the sights of the barren hills surrounding the flow and the sea birds and seals playing in the water.

As the group jumped from the boat into the water for the first dive I could see the look on each of their ugly faces, as they didn't know quite what to expect on the bottom. Descending the shot line we saw the shape of a ship coming out of the dark some 15 meters below, with an anti aircraft gun pointing up into the air, no longer defending the SMS Koln from attack. At33meters and lying on her side she is the most intact of the wrecks with her bridge, and guns and the mast lying out on the sea bed resplendent with the rigging and spotting tops, an awe-inspiring sight with visibility in excess of 15 meters. Surfacing after the obligatory safety stop I could see the undisguised enthusiasm of the group as they finally realized the scale and beauty of these wrecks. Siting on the deck afterwards in the sun having a cup of English tea all the talk was of this gun, that gun, the bow and stern. One somber reflection however was the commemorative plaque left on one of the rear gun barrels to remember the death of a diver on the Koln in 1999, a timely reminder that these wrecks can be deadly.

After a light lunch at the museum at the former naval base of Lyness we set out for our second dive on the Dresden, another light cruiser of 5,500 tons. The Dresden also lies on its side and is also quite intact, with some salvage work having been conducted on its boilers. We came down the shot line to 18m and explored the wreck, taking in more guns, impressive deck capstans and bridge. Coming up into the sunshine again I could see that the other divers were appreciating the quality of these wrecks. With the water at 13oC even the wet suit divers were happy!

The week progressed with more explorations of the German ships with the following days taking in one of the deeper battleships in the morning followed by shallower wrecks. On Tuesday we took a longer trip from our base at Stromness to head to the southern opening of the Flow and dive on a sunken fishing trawler, the James Barrie, lying in 43m of water. As this dive was subject to a large tidal flow we had to dive on slack water, however our skipper timed it perfectly so we had absolutely no current to worry about. The James Barrie was a nice break from the larger wrecks we had been diving, as at only 40 m long and 666 tons and in 20 meter visibility it was easy to take it in and see it as a "whole" ship. Coming up from the dive and looking back down on the wreck, with its side rail running up to the bridge it fixes in your memory. As there were already several divers decompressing on the line, we deployed our SMB and drifted with the very slight current to do our stops.

The rest of the weeks diving was impressive, with the hunt to locate the big guns on the battleships. These guns fired shells of 30cm diameter, over a range of almost 5 km. As the battleships lie upside down you have to come under the decks to locate the large gun turrets, and this is further complicated by the decking starting to sag down and effectively making the locations of the turrets in to caves. The very size of the wrecks also makes it that much more difficult, as at almost 200 meters long it takes a while to orientate yourself to know where to find them. It would take 3 or 4 dives on just one of these wrecks to get to know them, combined with their depth and the limitations this brings on dive times.

Tabarka interiorWe finished the weeks diving with two dives on the block ships in Burra sound, which is in the entrance to the Flow just near Stromness. These ships were deliberately sunk by the British Navy to try to stop German U boats sneaking into the Flow to attack the British Fleet. We dived on the Gobernador Bories and the Tabarka. Burra sound is swept by a fast running current, which can make a very nice drift dive, however if you want to look at the wrecks you have to dive on slack water. We dived the Tabarka first, she was a Chilean registered steamer, built in 1882. She lies in 16m, and is upside down. We descended onto her in crystal clear water, which would be hard to find in the Red Sea, let alone Northern Scotland. We all went into the Cathedral like hull, as the current was still running, and swam along inside her, navigating through all the holds, around the engines and boilers until exiting at her bow. A really unforgettable dive, combining the prolific fish life with the sunshine and gin clear water, topped off with a truly beautiful wreck.

The weather had turned a bit worse for the second of the block ships the Gobernador Bories. She was built in Rotterdam in 1909, and seized by the British Navy in 1940, The Gobernador Bories is more broken up however she still has lots of swim throughs, and also still has her propeller. The fish life and fixed life again was prolific, with many fish following waiting to be feed by obliging divers. The boilers are impressive, and the engine block stands proud at highest point, sitting up like the conning tower of a submarine.


Practicalities:

Many dive boats operate from Stromness, we dived on the MV Halton with a very experienced skipper Bob Anderson. Bob has been skipper on dive boats in Scapa Flow since 1998 and is also a keen diver diving these wrecks since 1993 he knows exactly what to recommend. Tanks are provided as is air and weights. The boats take a maximum of 12 divers each, not due to limitations of space but due to licensing restrictions. This means that the wrecks never get too crowded. Nitrox is available on most boats and technical diving with stage decompression bottles, manifolded twins and oxygen or Trimix can be accommodated if required. A decompression chamber is maintained in Stromness.

Accommodation can be arranged in local hotels or bed and breakfast, or some of the boats have live aboard facilities. Getting to Orkney is a little more difficult. Flights to Orkney are possible, however baggage restrictions may apply, alternatives are to drive or fly to Glasgow/Edinburgh and hire a car or van from there.

For more information see the web site of MV Halton on our links page.

Want to know more background information on Scapa Flow, click on the book links top right to get some great background reading on Scapa Flow, alll three books make fascinating reading and are an excellent complement to a dive trip.

 

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