If you want a diving holiday that's epic yet close to home, perhaps it's time to do that Scapa Flow trip you've always promised yourself. If it's your first time, MIKE WARD can set the scene
SCAPA FLOW HAS AN AWESOME REPUTATION among British divers for deep, dark and challenging wreck dives. Fair enough, the diving is awe-inspiring if you have any sense of history, but it’s only as deep, dark and challenging as you want it to be, and there’s much more to see than simply rusty metal in diving conditions that are as good as any you’ll find in the UK.
One Friday night last year we piled eight divers and their kit into a hired minibus, threw in the inevitable crate of lager and headed north.
Mark and Gen, heroically, took it in turns to drive through the night and they got us to John O’Groats in plenty of time for tea and bacon butties before boarding the ferry to St Margaret’s Hope on Orkney. Other ferry crossings are available but that’s the shortest, quickest and cheapest.
Once across, Gen took the wheel for the final stint to Stromness, driving across the Churchill Barriers between islands on the way. These were built during WW2 to stop German U-boats getting into the Flow – but only after U47 had torpedoed the Royal Oak inside it, demonstrating that the blockships sunk for the same purpose during WW1 were no longer up to the job.
The wrecks of the blockship are still there, of course, only partly submerged and clearly visible from the road.
Cue Gen screeching to a halt for a cheeky check-dive at the northern end of Barrier No 2, where there’s easy access to the water.
Just 30m from the entry point is the triple-expansion engine of the Lycia, and further on more wreckage from a tangle of ships. At a depth of 8m and with 10m of vis and lots of marine life, it was a great way to start the week, even if we were all knackered.
POST-DIVE, AND STILL DRIPPING a bit, we carried on round the island and then unloaded the kit onto our dive-boat, The Diving Cellar’s John L.
Not the easiest of jobs, but once done the kit stayed put for the week, with cylinders filled in situ. The set-up will be familiar to anyone who has dived from a Red Sea liveaboard, though the weather won’t be as warm.
Tired, hungry and thirsty, the oasis that is Flattie’s Bar came into sight as we climbed back to dry land.
Soon after that we discovered that they sell alcoholic beverages in large glasses, and much later that the Stromness chippy was ideally situated midway between the bar and our accommodation. Replete with beer, cholesterol and sleep deprivation, it was time for bed.
Next morning Leigh had a full cooked breakfast ready and waiting. She tells me that on a typical week the size of breakfast consumed gradually declines, but I did my best to single-handedly reverse that trend and can heartily recommend everything.
We’d been told to be aboard the John L at a leisurely 8.30. Shortly after that, skipper Angus coaxed a steady donk-donk-donk from the engine and we were on the way to our first wreck, the light cruiser Dresden.
The steam out took around an hour in what the local forecast called “no significant weather”. Twenty minutes before we arrived, Angus gave us a yell to get kitted.
Each wreck is permanently shotted, and each time Angus took us nice and close, placing the John L to allow an easy swim to the line, then cutting the prop and giving two toots on the whistle to stride in. We dropped divers in groups to avoid crowding the shotline. It was all very professional and very relaxed.
Our group was mixed in terms of kit and experience, so we agreed a maximum dive-time of an hour and a bit, a decent compromise between longer run times for the rebreather and twin-set users, and not keeping the single-cylinder divers hanging around on a wallowing boat for too long post-dive.
Buddy Gary and I, using rebreathers, took full advantage with 63 minutes on the Dresden and pretty much the same on everything else.
Deck-hand Cameron hadn’t been wasting his morning, and met us with a mug of tea and the laconic announcement that soup was ready. The soup was thick, tasty and hot, with more available on request. It was freshly homemade by Leigh and different every day.
ONCE EVERYONE WAS SAFELY recovered Angus took us into Lyness for the first of what became a daily visit.
Lyness used to be the main Royal Navy base on Orkney and is now a museum and cinema complex, telling the story of Scapa in two world wars.
A 15-minute walk takes you to the Naval Cemetery. It’s a beautifully maintained and peaceful place, and somehow a more chilling reminder of the realities of war than if it were neglected and overgrown.
When Europe slumped exhausted into an Armistice in 1918 to end WW1, the German Navy was still a potent force.
Its ships were modern, powerful and undefeated in battle and the world wanted them put securely beyond use.
Where better than Scapa Flow, the main base of the Royal Navy, the only navy capable of defeating the German fleet in a straight fight
The once-proud vessels rusted there for almost a year, manned by skeleton crews of German sailors, until they were scuttled on the orders of their own commander. He believed that the peace talks had broken down, the fighting was about to start again and the British would immediately take his ships by force.
Well over half a million tons of the most modern warships in the world went to the bottom on 21 June, 1919. Most of the wrecks were raised for their scrap value between the wars, but seven are still there, along with the remains of more.
Scapa Flow itself is a roughly oblong stretch of water with a flat sandy bottom and is sheltered from the worst of the North Atlantic weather by the encircling Orkney Islands.
Diving conditions are good, with little by way of currents and a very high standard of boat handling and dive safety.
BACK OUT IN THE FLOW, Angus dropped us on a second wreck for another excellent dive and then headed back to Stromness. On the way I discovered that the bulkhead at the forward end of the saloon was lovely and warm due to the proximity of the engine and provides the ideal conditions for a decompression nap.
Shortly after my eyes closed, the rest of the group discovered that the laces in my trainers were just long enough to tie to the slatted bench on which my legs were resting.
Lace issue resolved, once back at Stromness I headed to the digs, the Diving Cellar’s own warm, comfortable and clean accommodation. This has a mix of twin and triple rooms with en suite facilities that include a proper shower with unlimited hot water. Perfick.
There’s a kitchen if you prefer to cook for yourself, or Stromness boasts a variety of eating places within a five-minute stroll. All of them were good or better, and none of them had any trouble seating our full party of 10.
And that’s Scapa. You get a good breakfast, head out across the Flow and dive, have lunch, dive again, get showered, eat, sleep and repeat.
THE MAIN UNDERWATER ATTRACTIONS, of course, are the remaining wrecks of the German High Seas Fleet from WW1, three Dreadnought battleships and four light cruisers.
All sit on open sandy bottoms with no significant currents and usually about 8m of vis. On a grey, dull day the water can be dark and make it seem like less, but take a decent torch and all will be well.
The cruisers sit at between 25m and 33m – not very deep, but perhaps a bit deeper than most people dive most of the time.
Arriving dived-up and starting with the shallower stuff makes sense.
You don’t need to go all the way to the bottom to make a decent dive. All four lie on their sides with their decks almost vertical, so you can stay a good bit shallower and still see stuff.
Their layouts are very similar and they are well preserved and easy to navigate.
The three battleships are deeper, at 35-45m. They turned turtle when they sank, and unless you want to look at flat hull-plates you’ll need to be pretty close to the bottom, so leave them until the second half of the week.
They’re also very broken where they’ve been salvaged, and so much bigger than the cruisers. You’ll struggle to work out where you are on the wreck, although navigating them is still easy.
You note the depth at which the shot is tied, then swim away with the wreck on one side and back with it on the other.
SHOULD YOU GET BORED with the heavy stuff, there are plenty of other dives. The Gobernador Bories is one of three blockships in Burra Sound. It’s well broken but still clearly a ship, and where it lies is subject to huge tidal flows.
Angus dropped us in on slack, allegedly, and after a swim around the wreck we popped out into open water and went with the incoming tide for a proper drift. Great fun, and the water movement keeps the vis sparkling clear.
Another afternoon Gen had asked to dive with seals. The plan was to head back up the Barrel of Butter, but as we steamed out of Lyness we saw heads bobbing in the shallow waters around the island of Fara, so we kitted up and dropped into 3m of water for an hour of seal-watching and prolific macro life in the kelp.
Amazing what you can see when there’s no wreck getting in the way.
Each day we were back in by mid- to late-afternoon, so there was also time for some sight-seeing. Orkney boasts many neolithic sites, bird-watching, wartime gun-enplacements, walking and brewery and distillery tours. They’re in direct competition with the pub, of course, but you could do as we did and go out when it’s sunny and stay in when it’s rainy.
If you haven’t been, get yourself up there. If you’ve been before, you need no persuading to go back. And Scapa really doesn’t deserve the bad-boy reputation.
“Bloody Scappy!” my Grandad called it, and it wasn’t meant nicely.
Still, Bert had spent a goodly fraction of both world wars at Scapa Flow, so he was entitled to his opinion.
I was thinking about Bert as Skipper Angus brought the John L close to the buoy above the wreck of the Kronprinz Wilhelm.
The shotline was clearly in sight when the water closed over my head, so I just kept going down.
All I had to do was follow the rope, clear my ears and watch my Poseidon rebreather build the oxygen partial pressure to the deep set-point.
The German Dreadnought had turned turtle when scuttled, and came to rest on its starboard rails at 37m.
Its superstructure has kept its port side propped a few metres off the seabed, forming a vast dark cavern beneath what was once the main deck.
A little flutter of my fins and I moved gently into the space between 28,000 tons of battleship and the seabed.
It was cold, dark and quiet under there, but the backlight on the rebreather panel had come on automatically and the numbers were big and easy to read: PO2 steady at 1.3 bar, plenty of no-decompression time and loads of gas remaining.
The unit was breathing smoothly and almost silently, with just the soft clicks of the one-way valves in the mouthpiece and the regular sh-sh, sh-sh, sh-sh of the oxygen sensor validation. 40% helium in the diluent was keeping my head clear. Time to find what I’d come to Scapa Flow to see.
I left my torch switched off, preferring to fin slowly and let my eyes get used to the gloom.
There, half-buried in the sand ahead and looking like an enormous steel pipe, was the barrel of one of the battleship’s main guns.
Mid-way through the Battle of Jutland, at 4.55pm on 31 May, 1916, Kronprinz Wilhelm’s gun turrets had swung around until her big guns, including the barrel I was now hovering beside, were trained north-west toward an isolated squadron of four British battleships.
Within seconds her first salvo of armour-piercing shells was in the air, alongside those from her sisters in the German line – König, Grosser Kurfürst, Markgraf and a dozen more.
One of those British ships was HMS Valiant, and somewhere deep in her belly was Bert. He was 19, a wartime volunteer and a very green sailor fresh from basic training. Valiant was his first ship and Jutland his first sea-fight.
He never saw the German ships from his action station below decks and couldn’t tell the difference between a German hit and the enormous concussions of Valiant’s return gunfire.
Each breath might have been his last or might have brought an injury that would have left him crippled or scarred for life. Yet somehow, like thousands of others on both sides, he carried on and did his job.
ALL OF THAT RAN THROUGH MY MIND as I laid a hand on the barrel. One hit, good or bad according to the side for which you fought, was all it would have taken but both Valiant and Kronprinz were lucky ships at Jutland and neither took a single hit or casualty. Other ships around them were less fortunate.
A few metres shallower I found a casemate gun. These were secondary weapons, far smaller than the main guns and intended to allow a battleship to defend herself against attack by smaller vessels, but they’re still big things when you hover beside them.
Bert went on to fight another war with Germany in command of a similar battery on another RN battleship.
When the agreed dive-time ran out, I ascended through 30m of water and 97 years of history to a sunlit world with mugs of hot tea. Bert would have approved of the tea.
|GETTING THERE Ferries run direct to Stromness from Scrabster and Aberdeen or take the John O’Groats - St Margaret’s Hope ferry.|
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION Dive from a daily boat with on-shore accommodation or book a liveaboard. Clubs and groups of 10-12 can book a full boat; smaller groups and singles will need to call around for availability. John L, www.divescapaflow.co.uk
GAS Weights and cylinders will be available on the boat, though most divers take their own. Nitrox is routinely available and helium and oxygen easily organised at an extra charge. The wrecks are deep enough to get some benefit from trimix if you’re qualified, but it’s not essential. If you have a recreational rebreather, Scapa is the perfect place to get the best from it. Sofnolime is available, but check first and if in doubt take your own.
PRICES These vary but expect £500-550 for a week including accommodation, breakfast and 12 dives including air. A week’s nitrox will cost around £100, or £30 will cover oxygen fills for your rebreather, plus another £30 if you feed it trimix.
TOURIST INFORMATION www.visitorkney.com