Scapa Flow – the Best of Scottish wreck diving, 31 May to 7 June 2014

Posted on behalf of Steve:

After last year’s exciting trip to Scapa, I had the urge to re-visit and explore further the wrecks of these spectacular First World War German warships.

Time demands, budgetary restrictions & other commitments meant I was the sole representative from Perth but I jumped at the opportunity to join Dave, Simon & Matt from Weston-Super-Mare BSAC for another week aboard the liveaboard, MV Karin. Dave & Simon were on the 2013 trip, with Matt joining up to make a friendly foursome on board under the experienced command of skipper John Thornton.

The group gathered at the comfortable Weigh Inn in Scrabster for a convivial pre-embarkation evening with a bite to eat and a couple of pints. My king sized bed and marble tile lined bathroom were a notable contrast to the functional facilities on board the good ship ‘Karin’.
Simon brought his trusty Transit van up from Somerset and taking this over to Stromness eliminated the need for us to use the Northlink dive trolleys as well as having a vehicle to visit some tourist attractions when the dive day was over, usually about 3pm.

A smooth sail on Saturday morning across the Pentland Firth & past the Old Man of Hoy on the ferry ‘Hamnavoe’ brought us to Stromness and the MV Karin where it became apparent that we were the only divers for this week! Thanks to John for running the trip for only 2 buddy pairs!

Gear quickly stowed & twin sets prepared for diving, we headed out to the SMS Karlsruhe for our Saturday afternoon shakedown dive.
Simon & l slipped down the shot, excitement mounting as the hull came quickly into view at around 12m. Lots of big holes on the superstructure side of this cruiser which is covered in plumose anemones, deadmen’s fingers, starfish, urchins and crustaceans plus shoals of sprat like fish, large Cuckoo & Ballan Wrasse, Luing & Cod, notably more fish life than in 2013 probably the result of us visiting in early summer rather than late spring.

Buoyed up by our first dive we steamed back to Stromness then headed ashore to Scapa Scuba where spending cash on a variety of useful stuff like my new Fourth Element Arctic socks, T-shirts, hoodies & not forgetting a large bottle of lube, always seems easy in the company of their cheery manageress

The joys of ‘Scapa Special’ ale at the Ferry Inn beckoned us afterwards.

After an early night, Sunday morning saw us steaming to dive the battleship the SMS ‘Kronprinz Wilhelm’ lying on her starboard side in about 35m. From the shot we headed towards the stern area amidst plenty of life, large holes enabling us to see into the wreck (especially looking over Simon’s shoulder along the amazingly powerful beam of his ‘Light for me’ torch!). We passed one of the masts still lying on the sea bed, one of the gun turrets & admired the large rudders at the stern itself. We surfaced on Simon’s DSMB, followed by soup & sandwiches on the ‘Karin’ while mulling over the sheer scale of the battleship wrecks.

For the afternoon, we headed to the blockship ‘Tabarka’, lying in fairly shallow water at around 16m & surrounded by a kelpy, rocky bottom. Unfortunately, the tide was running pretty fast with the kelp adopting a horizontal angle as we hunkered down by the hull sheltering from its full force & looking inside through all the gaps alongside. We were unable to enter the wreck since the direction of the current gave us the strong impression that once in we probably wouldn’t be able to get out & despite the amount of gas in our twin sets we didn’t fancy taking a chance on it! The site is pretty photogenic so I had fun taking a short video. Surfacing was more than usually exciting with Simon appearing to fly away in the current when he deployed the DSMB, no way could I keep up!

Monday saw us enjoying two cruiser wreck dives, the SMS ‘Dresden’ in the morning & the SMS ‘Coln’ in the afternoon, lying in about 35m. Both were pretty stunning, the ‘Coln’ having the edge because the vis was at least 4-5m more than at the ‘Dresden’, a bit over 12m! Both sites offered a tremendous variety of life. I preferred the cruiser wrecks because although still large wrecks, they are significantly smaller than the battleships which gives you a better chance of touring most of the vessel & having the satisfaction of returning to the shot!
On returning to Stromness I headed to the Stromness Museum, covering the history of the Orkneys, their strong maritime traditions, Nordic connections, links with local explorers, whaling etc. I particularly enjoyed reading the log of an Orkney born skipper operating a cargo sailing vessel around the world in the mid-19th Century.

Tuesday, we enjoyed a visit to the cruiser SMS ‘Brummer’ another superb wreck dive, lying on her starboard side, from flat calm surface conditions! We passed a couple of guns, glanced through the large holes in her hull, though resisted the temptation to be drawn inside, whilst many large wrasse, Cod & Luing ambled around us!

We were moored at Lyness for the lunch break & took the opportunity to visit the Lyness Visitor Centre which covers the background to and scuttling of the German Grand Fleet comprehensively – a very good place to off gas before your afternoon dive!

After a light lunch we headed for the F2, a German escort vessel captured at the start of WW2 which sank at her moorings in 1946. The forward gun is clearly visible and Simon & I enjoyed a swim through the wreck. There is a line linking the wreck of the F2 to the salvage barge YC-21 which had been involved in salvaging anti-aircraft guns in 1968, but sank during a storm – so this site gives you two wrecks for the price of one dive, with little time restriction lying in only 17m!

Wednesday morning saw us return to the battleship Kronprinz Wilhelm – this second dive we were a bit more able to work out where we were on the wreck (rudders a good giveaway!). Loads of fish life surrounded us again on a relaxing slack water dive.

The wreck of German U-boat UB116 beckoned us after lunch; this was a superb scenic dive around the 30m mark with vis at least 12-14m, shoals of silvery sprat like fish, large Wrasse, Luing and a Conger snoozing quietly in a hole until Simon’s torch beam briefly woke him up with blinding light!! This sub was sunk by mines with the loss of all hands as she entered Scapa on 28th October 1918; rather sad as it appears she may have been looking to surrender just a few days before hostilities ceased on 11th November 1918. She was left until construction of the Flotta oil terminal began in the 1970s with the Royal Navy blowing her & the remains of her torpedoes up in an enormous explosion in 1975 which apparently shattered windows on Flotta!

Thursday took us back to two favourites from earlier in the week – SMS ‘Dresden’ & SMS ‘Brummer’. I played cameraman for another attempt at videoing the ‘Dresden’ but for the afternoon Simon kindly leant me his amazing light (he was flying south on Friday morning so was into the 24 hour no dive pre-flight rest period) – this was staggeringly powerful (might even interest Chris ….!!). We noticed how the deck is coming apart from the hull around the bows of the ‘Brummer’. Clearly 95 years under water is having a seriously deteriorating effect on these huge wrecks.

Late Thursday afternoon the Transit was pressed into use for a touristy tour taking in the Highland Park Distillery, the remarkable Italian Chapel (constructed by Italian prisoners of war in WW2) & the moving memorial to the sinking of HMS ‘Royal Oak’, the battleship sunk by German torpedoes from the U-boat U47 on 14th October 1939. 833 Officers & men died (some only 15 years old) when she sank in about 10 minutes after her ammunition magazine was struck. This war grave is the wreck that Royal Navy divers place a Royal Ensign on at each anniversary of her sinking.

Friday we rounded off a superb week’s diving by returning to the sites of cruisers SMS Coln & Karlsruhe, the final dive obviously popular since it was the only one we had to dodge round divers from boats other than our own MV ‘Karin’.

Another great week, thanks to buddies Simon, Dave & Matt and also of course to John & crew again!!