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I know it's a bit late as far as trip reports go, but here is a short account of a trip to Scapa Flow.


Scapa Flow

If you are a diver with more than a passing interest in wrecks you have probably heard of “Scapa Flow”.  You may have read about the scuttling of the German high seas fleet in 1919 and the subsequent salvage operation, the appalling loss of life following the sinking of the Royal Oak in 1939 and the HMS Hampshire in 1916.  These historic events have left their mark on this dramatic and windswept expanse of water.

Naval sabotage

On 21 June 1919, in the most significant act of naval sabotage the world has ever seen, the entire German Imperial Navy’s High Seas Fleet was sent to the bottom of Scapa Flow to prevent it falling into the hands of the British.

Of the seventy-four great warships scuttled on that momentous day over eighty years ago, only eight of the original fleet remain on the sea bed.  They are the 26,000-ton battleships Konig, Markgraf and Kronprinz Wilhelm, the 5,000-ton light cruisers Dresden, Brummer, Coln and Karlsruhe and the 900-ton destroyer V83.  Today therefore, Scapa Flow is a Mecca to wreck diving enthusiasts.  Divers from around the world come to Orkney to explore these unique and historically significant wrecks.

Decompression? - maybe

To many sport divers the mere mention of the word “Scapa Flow” conjures up images of technical divers preparing for deep dives using mixed gasses and undertaking long decompression stops in an inhospitable environment.  Surely, only an elite group of experienced divers possess the skills and experience necessary to dive the German fleet in Scapa Flow?  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  The wrecks of Scapa Flow are accessible to most divers with experience of diving in UK waters.

The depth of the wrecks and the inevitable square dive profiles involved does mean that divers willing to undertake some decompression, and preferably breathing Nitrox will usefully extend their bottom times and therefore add to their enjoyment of these awesome wrecks.  For example, a no-decompression air dive on the Markgraf would only permit a cursory glance at this awesome 26,000-ton battleship.  After a little more than 10 minutes of bottom time it would be time to start thinking about your ascent.

The ‘John L’

We visited Orkney in September as guests of Leigh and Douggie Caldwell at the Diving Cellar, based in Stromness.  The Diving Cellar operates a six day charter boat, the ‘John L’ between March and October.

The 65ft ‘John L’ is one of the largest day boats operating in Scapa Flow.  This steel-hulled former tugboat provides a stable platform with a low free board making entry and exit to and from the water a breeze.  There is a large day cabin with a cooker and a plentiful supply of hot drinks supplied throughout the day.
Arriving on the early evening ferry from Scrabster on Saturday we were met at the Stromness ferry terminal by Douggie who took us to the ‘John L’ to stow our dive gear ready for the following mornings departure.  After a meal in the Ferry Inn we were glad to get to get to our beds, tired after our long drive.  I slept well but the sound of the howling wind throughout the night did little to reassure me about the week of diving which lay ahead and my impending seasickness.

The Karlsruhe

The following morning we were aboard the John L by 08:30 and on our way to the Karlsruhe, the 5,000-ton light cruiser lying in 26m of water, just North of the island of Cava.  A stiff South Easterly greeted us as we slipped out of Stromness harbour and I eyed the white crests on the waves in the distance wondering whether my stomach would hold up to the punishment it was about to receive.  A quick trip to the wheelhouse confirmed my worst fears when skipper Robert used the term “a bit lumpy” when describing the sea state.

Arriving at the Karlsruhe we kitted up and our skipper expertly manoeuvred the John L into position.  A blast from the ships horn was our signal to giant stride into the water and allow the surface current to take us to the shot line.  All the wrecks in the flow are buoyed with permanent shotlines.  My first impressions when locating and descending the shot to the Karlsruhe was that the shot resembled more of a lemonade bottle and a piece of string than the normal sturdy shot I’m used to!  Once under the water I was greeted with the dense green algae bloom, not uncommon at this time of the year.  However, after descending to about 15 metres the algae quickly cleared and my torch quickly picked out the ghostly shape of the Karlsruhe lying on its starboard side.  The ship itself is relatively intact, despite countless salvage operations carried out over the years.  The two bow mounted 5.9” guns can be clearly seen, one of which has fallen away to the seabed still attached to a large section of decking.  The remaining stern and mid-ship mounted guns have been lost to the salvagers.  Moving along her keel toward the stern, wreckage is strewn everywhere.  About one-third of the ship has been blown apart and only a collection of twisted metal remains where the mid-ship section once was.  The shallowest part of the wreck lies at approximately 15m from the surface making the Karlsruhe an ideal shakedown dive for new arrivals with a week of wreck diving ahead of them.  Ascending the skinny shot-line my thoughts turned to the awesome size of the battleships we were due to dive later in the week.  Whilst the Karlsruhe seemed to be a big wreck to me I remembered that the beam of the 26,000-ton Markgraf at 30m is twice that of the Karlsruhe!

On surfacing and signalling to the boat I allowed myself to drift off the shot as Robert brought the boat around to pick me up.  James, the deck hand, has perfected the art of assisting divers up the ladder, making the whole process a doddle even when the sea state is “a bit lumpy”.  After de-kitting and stowing my gear a hot cup of tea was thrust into my hand - a very welcome sight after a memorable dive.

Over the next few days we dived the cruisers Brummer, Dresden, and Coln as well as the 26,000-ton battleships Markgraf and Kronprinz Wilhelm.  All these dives were special in their own way but any account of a trip to Orkney would not be complete without some mention of the attractions above the surface of Scapa Flow.

Surface interval

After our first dive in the morning the John L would take us ashore for a well-earned rest and some food and hot drinks.  Depending on the afternoon’s intended destination we would normally go ashore at Houton, Stromness or to the old naval base of Lyness, on the island of Hoy.  Lyness is home to the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre.  This former pump house has been converted to provide a fascinating series of displays and exhibits.  Heading from the boat jetty, visitors are greeted by the sight of the 43-ton bronze propeller and drive shaft salvaged from HMS Hampshire, the armoured cruiser on which Lord Kitchener perished in June 1916.  Further exhibits include guns salvaged from the scuttled German high seas fleet, torpedoes and military artefacts from both world wars.  A comprehensive collection of photographs and an account of the sinking of the Royal Oak can be found inside.  The Royal Navy cemetery, a short walk from the visitor centre, serves as a poignant reminder of those who lost their lives during two world wars.  At the far end of the cemetery lies the graves of the nine German sailors who perished on the day the German fleet was scuttled, the headstone inscriptions bearing the date – 21 June 1919.

The Tabarka

In contrast to the battleships and cruisers in Scapa Flow are the blockships, deliberately sunk in shallow water to prevent enemy vessels from entering the flow.  A short distance from Stromness and between the islands of Burra and Hoy lies the Tabarka, a 2,600-ton steamer, seized in 1940 and taken to Scapa Flow.  She was initially sunk in Kirk Sound only to be refloated and taken to Burra sound and resunk.

Diving the blockships requires a totally different approach.  Due to the fierce currents experienced in this narrow channel (up to 14 knots!) there is no such luxury as a shotline!  With divers kitted up and ready to go, skipper Robert sounded the ships horn as our signal go.  Normal safe diving practice would have had me signalling an ‘okay’ to the boat, meeting up with my buddy, composing myself ready for my descent and after orienting myself, checking my instruments and signalling to my buddy to descend.  These formalities were dispensed with and it was a ‘negative descent’ entry and every man for himself!  Spending more than a few seconds in the strong surface current would result in being swept off the wreck site.   I found that by actually sucking air from the bladder of my BC on the surface, I could be sure that when I hit the water I would immediately descend after breathing out and venting my dry suit.  That way I could be sure that I didn’t miss the wreck.  Once beneath the surface and after descending to a depth of about 10 metres, the upturned hull of the Tabarka came in to view.  With a dozen divers scrabbling to enter the wreck and keep out of the current I was impressed with the etiquette displayed whilst queuing to enter the Tabarka through a narrow opening at the stern.  Once inside, we were protected from the current and enjoyed a spectacular dive with 20m visibility.  This wreck is a photographer’s dream with heaps of natural light and abundant marine life.  However, do take care when exiting the wreck.  My ascent from the Tabarka reminded me of what diving in a washing machine must be like!

The diving season in Scapa Flow generally runs from March, when the water is a chilly 6 degrees, through to mid October.  Our visit in September was blessed with a 12 degree water temperature and top-side weather ranging from a gale force 8 south easterly at the beginning of the week to a more pleasant force 4 and clear blue skies during the latter part of the week.  The John L is a truly remarkable vessel.  My normal seasickness simply did not materialise during the week despite the ‘lumpy’ conditions.

Bob Cooper
18 November 2000

1770 words
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