World Wrecks Tour – Scapa Flow

Text by Monty Halls, images by Dan Burton

As the little aircraft containing our group rattled towards the islands of Orkney from the Scottish mainland to the south, a spiralling low pressure system charged in simultaneously from the wild waters to the north. We arrived at the tiny island together, meaning that day one of our expedition was spent wincing and staggering in icy northern winds, first as we stumbled out of the departure lounge in Kirkwall Airport, next as we assembled equipment with numb fingers on the deck of the MV Karin, the splendid boat that was to be our home for our week in Scapa Flow.

Scapa Flow, a massive sheltered area of water neatly encircled by the islands of Orkney, lying 16 miles off the north coast of Scotland. The Flow itself is roughly 15 miles from east to west, and 10 miles from north to south, making it one of the largest natural harbours in the world. The islands themselves are craggy, stark, very beautiful, and characteristic of the convoluted coastline of Scotland itself – a maze of inlets and bays that stretch for 6525 miles, the equivalent distance of Scotland to Japan.

A hint as to the ancient importance of this ring of wild islands as an anchorage comes in the name itself. Scapa Flow is a translation of Skalpeid-floi (Bay of the Long Isthmus), an Old Norse term from when the Vikings plied these waters on their monumental voyages to Iceland and Ireland. In 1670 the main port of Stromness, already a whaling and fishing centre, became the main European Base for the Hudson’s Bay Company, and in 1813 the first substantial military bases were established in response to the threat from piracy.

The wrecks on the sea bed in these islands therefore span the history of European sea travel itself, and yet it is war that has given the Flow a special place in the diving fraternity. In 1919 the 74 ships of the captive German Fleet under Admiral von Reuter were corralled in the Flow, captives of the Royal Navy and the victorious allies. A misunderstanding of a newspaper report led Admiral von Reuter to believe that hostilities had been resumed, and on 21 June he gave the order that initiated the greatest scuttling event in maritime history. Although 22 of the ships were towed to shallow water by the Royal Navy, and many were salvaged through the efforts of Messrs Cox and Danks (in itself an epic story), there are still a large number of magnificent wrecks littering the sea bed.

This was to be a gladiatorial first week, and the team glanced out into the dark waters of Orkney with some trepidation from the twitching deck of the boat, tethered alongside the harbour wall in the main fishing port of Stromness. Around us was an impressive array of manifolds and valves, dive cylinders and kit, all bolted together with shiny d-rings and elasticated loops.

Fortunately our skipper John is an old hand at guiding those less familiar with the black arts of mixed gas diving which are occasionally required in these waters, and surveyed the team with a well practised eye. Although there was a wealth of experience in our group, there were also one or two more accustomed to tepid waters and lycra suits. It was therefore decided to start the week on the shallower wrecks, before moving on to the more demanding dives as time progressed.

Our first dive was to be on The Karlsruhe, a cruiser lying in a sedate 24 metres of water. This was the perfect debut dive for the team on this expedition, pulling ourselves down the line into the atmospheric gloom of Scapa. Handle this, and the rest of the trip should be a fiesta of crystal viz and balmy skies.

The shallower wrecks in Scapa are festooned with life as befits these islands awash with currents and bathed in icy cold oxygen-rich water. Plumlose anemones jostle for position with sponges, and sea squirts sway beneath fields of kelp. Moving overhead are pollack so big you wonder whether it’s wise to turn your back on them, whilst the most luridly coloured wrasse I’ve ever seen root around in the body of the wreck like plump pigs.

To the fore was Crann Davies, a retired engineer who joined the expedition as a once in a lifetime gift to himself. Crann was notable amongst the group as the only diver not wearing a hood, a shock of grey hair creating a halo emanating from a presumably numb scalp as he drifted over the wreck superstructure.

Suitably buoyed up by the triumph of our first dive, the team spent the afternoon dive exploring one of the famous block ships dotted around the ring of islands that make up Scapa Flow. Sunk by the Admiralty in 1914 to prevent submarines sneaking into the anchorage and wreaking havoc amongst the moored might of the Royal Navy, these shallow wrecks are a riot of temperate species clamouring on technicoloured hulls. These are magnificent dives for the photographer, with groups of wrasse following you loyally around the interior of the wrecks, waiting for handouts. Beneath the stern of the Gobernador Bories, our particular choice of block ship for our first day, the fully intact rudder and prop lie half buried in the silt. Peering from the dark cavern created by the overhanging hull was a huge lobster, waving deep blue pincers at us as we filed respectfully past.

The next two days saw Orkney really flex its metereological muscles, with the storm front deepening into a howling gale that whipped the sea surface into white spume and made the boats in the harbour tremble against their moorings. John valiantly managed to get us through to the wreck of the K2, our boat snorting and bucking through charging rollers on the passage out. This dive again was a beauty, a small vessel lying on one side, bow gun pointing towards the sea floor, and jumbled wreckage amidships creating an endless series of nooks and crannies through which I spied the great slate grey head of a large conger eel snaking backwards into its lair.

Our final dive was to be The Brummer, a small destroyer that is a Scapa classic. By now the gale had intensified, and this dive really had it all – howling winds, wildly corkscrewing deck and dark waters streaked with white foam. The Brummer did not disappoint, a beautiful well preserved wreck in the cold heart of the Flow. With great skill John extracted the divers from the maelstrom, and returned to the refuge of the harbour with a wild eyed team on board ready for anything the remainder of the trip could throw at them.

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