THE FIRST-TIME DIVER
Martin Bruce made his first visit to Scapa Flow in June 2009 top conincidfe with the 90th anniversary of the sinking of the German High Seas Fleet.
The reputation of Scapa Flow precedes it. Like it or not, Scapa has a certain mystique surrounding it. By those you haven’t been, it’s deep, dark, and dangerous, while those who have report that it’s all part of the hype. All I knew is that I wanted to be prepared for my first visit in June 2009, a symbolic trip arranged to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the sinking of the German High Seas Fleet in 1919.
The week before the trip I squeezed in a couple of dives for kit familiarisation and to refresh skills, and also to get some deeper UK dives in to try and simulate the kind of conditions I’d be in for in Scapa. At least if it was deep, dark and dangerous I would be prepared!
In terms of UK diving at least, this would be the most challenging diving I had done. It would certainly be the deepest, with up to 47m possible on the deepest of the battleships, but rather than feel a sense of trepidation, I was up for whatever Scapa could throw at me.
It felt good to get our warm-up dive out of the way and get off the mark. We began with the Coln, the most intact of the four cruisers. Heading down the shotline in less than ideal vis, the rope disappeared into the gloom both above and below. Then at 18m the port side of the hull loomed into view, the shotline being fixed roughly half way along the 155-metre-long wreck. As we tipped over the edge of the hull and began to descend the now vertical deck the gloomy green turned rapidly to shadowy blackness.
Our torches cut a swathe through the dark and quickly came to rest upon one of the Coln’s eight 5.9-inch guns. The scale of everything quickly becomes apparent. While the shallowest part of the Coln lies in 18m, the bottom is at 36m – these wrecks are simply huge, and due to the size and depth you’re best advised to concentrate on half of the wreck in one dive. We actually did two dives on the Coln – our first and last of nine, so we at least got to cover the whole wreck. The Coln was one of my favourites – while some of the other cruisers and battleships turned almost completely turtle when they sank, the Coln lies on its side and so you can pick out many of the features.
The guns are one of the most recognisable and impressive features of these wrecks. On the cruisers they are 5.9-inches, while those on the battleships measure a whopping 12 inches. All three, Konig, Markgraf and Kronprinz Wilhelm carried ten of the big ones and 14 of the smaller ones. The Kronprinz Wilhelm is where they are most visible; you can find one of the 12-inch guns poking out from under the wreck down on the seabed. It is simply enormous, and takes a while to fin along its length.
Other memorable sites, and for me one of the enduring images of the wrecks in Scapa, was our dive on the Markgraf – beginning in 25m and disappearing down to 47m – it’s the deepest of the three battleships. The Markgraf is also almost completely turned turtle with just a few metres of its upturned deck visible at the seabed. As you descend onto the hull you could be forgiven for thinking you had hit the seabed. The hull extends into every direction and is simply vast. In fact, all three battleships’ hulls measure 27 metres across.
The best bit of the Markgraf is the bow. At the seabed you get the most amazing view, as with narcosis kicking in, you look back up towards the surface along the knife-edge of the bow which curves over your head. It’s another of those moments when diving on this German fleet when you get a sense for how big these ships are.
These had been the deepest dives I had done in the UK, but once I got used to the visibility and the reduced light at depth, it was pretty straightforward diving with no currents and ascents and descents using a buoyed shotline. The sheer size of these ships has to be seen to be believed, they are steadily deteriorating, so care must be taken, yet for the first-time visitor or the less experienced diver there is plenty here within the boundaries of an Advanced Open Water diver.
The sense of occasion and history when diving these wrecks is tangible, and as UK divers we’re lucky to have access to such a famous incident in maritime history practically on our doorstep.
Lawson Wood is the author of the definitive book on the area, Scapa Flow Diving Guide published by Aquapress.
When I first visited Scapa Flow, way back when, little did I realise that I would become so embroiled in the history, myth and mystique of this historic body of water that I would end up writing its history. When I first visited Orkney, there were already several excellent dive guide books on the area, but most were either out of print or out of date. Many authors had already recounted the various histories of the Orkneys, even as far back as the 12th century.
I have visited Orkney and Scapa Flow on many occasions, three of which have been with the Royal Navy to carry out the annual visual survey of HMS Royal Oak and replace the ensign on her upturned propeller shaft. I was also responsible for the first photographic documentation of the oil leaks through her hull.
Out of my own interest, I inevitably became involved in the research of the ships as I felt that there was so much information untold. I soon discovered that a number of books had discrepancies in the spelling of a ship’s name, or its weight or even the date that it sank and the location. Apart from honest to goodness detective work through all of the agencies and museums, undoubtedly the greatest source of up to date as well as historical information came from the diving operators themselves, most of whom had already done extensive research on the ships and their correct positions and I am indebted to all of them for their help and support in the book project. Whilst it would be incumbent of me not to mention specific names, Kevin Heath stands out, this gentle man knows more about the shipwrecks of Scapa Flow than anyone else I know.
Some of the best information came from unexpected sources such as the inventory of works carried out in Scapa Flow by Metal Industries and actual line drawings, maps and charts of every blockship sunk by the Royal Navy during both World Wars including aerial photographs.
Scapa Flow can be as complicated or as easy diving as you want to have. It is the perfect location for learning to dive on historic shipwrecks and divers of any qualification can dive on over 80 per cent of all the shipwrecks in the vicinity. Do not be put off by the macho image surrounding diving in Scapa Flow. Orkney waters are for everyone!
Caroline Appleyard is an artist and diver from Chesterfield who has painted the wrecks of Scapa Flow.
“As a professional artist I’m very lucky to combine my two passions, diving and painting. Scapa Flow is my favourite dive destination because it’s unique. I’ve had several trips there and couldn’t wait to get back to paint on the great wrecks. I knew that I couldn’t paint an entire wreck as I’d never have enough time, so decided to concentrate on guns and parts of the wrecks.
Painting wrecks is easier than fish as the subject doesn’t move. I use oil pastels on hardboard because wet board sinks nicely. Some of the pastels are buoyant, so I cable-tie nuts and bolts onto them. I also wear lots more weight than usual so I stick to the seabed. I try to get to the place I’m painting as quickly as possible and play fast metal on my MP3 so I paint faster. Then I end up with less deco and finish before my buddy falls asleep.” For painting sales and commissions, see Caroline’s website.
Carly Tait from Visit Scotland says Orkney has much to offer the non-diver, from stunning scenery to World Heritage sites
Skara Brae is the best-preserved group of Stone Age houses in western Europe, and a World Heritage site. The houses contain stone furniture, hearths and drains. The visitor centre has original artifacts and a replica house.
Standing Stones of Stenness
Two ancient stone circles can be found on Orkney - the four remaining Standing Stones of Stenness are believed to be the oldest henge monument in Britain, built around 5,400 years ago. The Ring of Brodgar consists of 36 stones arranged in an almost perfect circle, 104 metres in diameter and built between 4,00 and 4,500 years ago.
Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum
Non-divers can get a sense of the history of Scapa Flow without getting wet at the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum. It tells the story of the importance of Scapa Flow as a safe harbour and features salvaged items from the German High Seas Fleet, as well as scale models of the ships. Admission is free.