90 years in the making - part 1
It is 21 June and, as I stand in the bow of the Radiant Queen as it steams out of Stromness harbour, I can’t help but imagine how different a scene would be unfolding in front of me exactly 90 years ago to the day. Instead of the odd fishing boat and the other dive charter vessels that are now a familiar sight in the Flow, I would be surrounded by a massive fleet of modern German warships in the various throes of sinking beneath the surface after the largest ‘ship suicide’ in history.
Being up in Scapa Flow on the actual 90th anniversary of the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet was a humbling experience, and the two dives carried out on that day, on the cruisers Coln and Karlsruhe, were made extra special because of the importance of 21 June. Diving on the wrecks is an amazing experience at any time of the year, but the special date made it truly unique.
This was my sixth trip up to Scapa Flow, and this time I was accompanied by my friend Paul Cushing – a dedicated Scapa fan who was eager to get back up to the Orkneys after being introduced to the delights of the German fleet in May 2007 – and deputy editor Martin Bruce, our ‘Scapa virgin’. Martin had never dived anything even remotely like the German High Seas Fleet, and his experiences during his voyage of discovery will be more extensively covered in a separate article in a forthcoming issue of Sport Diver.
We’d arranged to join Emily Turton on board the Radiant Queen (rqcharters.co.uk). This hardy little vessel has long been a regular sight in the Flow, and since being owned by skipper Emily, and Ben Wade, from PADI dive centre Scapa Scuba, it has been transformed. It was recently refitted and now benefits from a larger salon area and improved kitchen facilities, which allow Emily to dish up some remarkable grub. We were treated to spaghetti bolognaise, shepherd’s pie, lasagne and hot pork sandwiches during our trip – and let’s not even start mentioning the cardiac-arrest-inducing desserts!
We had opted for a long weekend up in the Orkneys, so instead of having to hack all the way up to Scrabster to catch the ferry to Stromness, we instead went straight up the A1 to Edinburgh and then to Aberdeen to jump on the Northlink Ferries (northlinkferries.com) service to Kirkwall. We caught the Saturday evening ferry, then dived Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, coming back overnight and arriving in Aberdeen the early hours of Thursday morning ready for the drive back down south. A couple of movies in the onboard cinema helped pass the time on the six-hour journey north, and coming back overnight, we got a good night’s sleep in a four-berth cabin.
So, we had four days of diving to look forward to, and I wanted to hit each one of the ‘big seven’ – the huge 177-metre, 26,000-tonne battleships Konig, Markgraf and Kronprinz Wilhelm, and the four 155-metre, 6,000-tonne cruisers Coln, Karlsruhe, Dresden and Brummer – at least once during our stay. First up, as stated previously, were the cruisers Coln and Karlsruhe. The Coln is one of the most-intact of the warships in the Flow, with only relatively minor damage from the salvage teams, and it is still possible to make out battle bridges, deck guns and the teak decking, albeit smothered in silt and colourful marine growth. The Karlsruhe suffered the most at the hands of the salvors, and from just behind the front two deck guns and battle bridge, the rest of the ship is a jumbled mass of tangled wreckage.
The two front deck guns lie haphazardly on top of one another, and the bow has dropped down towards the seabed, but perhaps the most-impressive view of this wreck comes when you round the bottom of the hull and head back towards the broken parts of the ship. The once-smooth side of the vessel is absolutely covered in a prolific growth of plumose anemones, so thick you can’t see the rusting metal beneath them. Day two and we decided to hit one of the battleships first – and what better ship to start on than the Kronprinz Wilhelm. The Kronprinz is the shallowest of the battleships, which all turned turtle as they sank due to the immense weight of their main gun turrets and armour-plating.
The Kronprinz didn’t roll over as far as its sister ships, meaning it is the best battleship to dive if you want to see the main 12” guns. The seabed is 33-39m, depending on where you are diving, and you hit the bottom of the keel of the huge vessel at just 12m. It almost feels like a wall dive when you drop down the immense side of the ship heading towards the silty bottom. As you near the seabed, a gaping maw opens next to you, and finning carefully to avoid disturbing the silt which coats everything, it is possible to actually venture beneath the vast wreck.
Swimming along the length of the vessel, you will come across casement guns poking out of huge pieces of armour-plating, and then you will see the end of the barrel of one of the 12” guns poking out of the silt. It is sunk into the mud slightly, but you can still see the huge width of the barrel – these mighty guns could fire a massive shell several miles. Directly above this barrel is another enormous piece of armour-plating, and this is the other turret. Head further along and you will see a large cylinder disappearing into the gloom – this is another 12” gun. The width of the barrel where it leaves the turret is truly immense, and makes you feel very insignificant. Swimming the length of the barrel to the end seems to take forever, and all the while you are thinking about the 90-year-old, 26,000-tonnes of metal sitting over the top of you!
continued in part 2....