Resting just beyond the Northern tip of mainland Britain - with the scuttled German Fleet laying in Scapa Flow as well as many other shipping casualties, stunning underwater wildlife and scenery - Orkney has a truly unique underwater environment.
With a vast amount of individual islands, Orkney has many miles of coastline and wherever you are you will never be more than a stones throw from a great diving location. Sitting on the edge of the Atlantic Gulf Stream Orkney benefits from clean nutrient rich waters which in turn feed the diverse marine life. This vast and varied amount of marine life, combined with a huge number of wrecked ships, create one of the best cold water diving locations in the world. The diving in Orkney is probably most famous for the German Fleet of World War One which was scuttled in Scapa Flow.
Scapa Flow is 24km by 13km creating a massive natural harbour between the various islands. This area has been used as a safe anchorage since the Viking times but more recently was a major military base with key strategic importance for the Royal Navy in both World Wars. By using Scapa Flow, the Royal Navy was able to control the access to both the North Sea and the Atlantic.
German High Seas Fleet
As the First World War drew to a close, and the Armistice was signed in November 1918, a place had to be found to store the large German Fleet. The armistice called for the vessels to be interned in neutral ports or, if this was not possible, then a place of the allies choosing. So in late 1918 74 ships of the German High Seas Fleet commanded by Admiral Ludwig von Reuter steamed into Scapa Flow to begin their internment. As timed passed, crew numbers were reduced to ‘skeleton’ levels. There was never any real possibility of the ships being able to leave Scapa at the end of the internment and the deadline for agreeing the terms for peace approached. With no sign of an agreement, and with no regular source of accurate information, Von Reuter prepared for the end of the armistice and the resumption of hostilities. His only option as an ‘act of war’ was to scuttle his Fleet and put it beyond the reach of the allied nations. So, on the 21st June 1919 the 74 vessels of the German High Seas Fleet were sent to the bottom of Scapa Flow. The inter-war years witnessed a massive salvage operation pioneered by Ernest G Cox, “the man who bought a navy”, and today divers can visit the 7 remaining vessels of the High Seas Fleet - 3 battleships and 4 light cruisers.
The 3 battleships remaining in Scapa Flow are all Konig class vessels, which fought at the “Battle of Jutland” as part of the 3rd Battle Squadron.
Now laying near to the island of Cava the SMS Konig, SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm and SMS Markgraf are probably the most accessible battleship dives in the world. All 3 vessels are of a similar size - they are huge ships weighing approx. 26000 tonnes, 180m long with a beam of 30m. Though some salvage has taken place they remain largely intact. Popular dives include the big 12” guns on the Kronprinz Wilhelm, a rummage in the engine rooms of the Konig or a cruise along the casemate guns of the Markgraf.
Depths on the battleships range from 15-45m, although to get the best dive possible on them plan to go deeper than on the cruisers.
4 cruisers remain on the bottom of Scapa Flow - the SMS Karlsruhe, SMS Coln, SMS Dresden and the SMS Brummer. All have similar dimensions and are 150m in length, with a beam of 15m and weighing approx. 5000 tonnes
Though they may seem similar in size, they are all very different dives with 3 different class of cruiser amongst them. Depths vary from 14-36m but as the ships all lay on their side it is not necessary to dive as deep as on the battleships to get the best from them.
Popular sites are the forward guns of the Karlsruhe, the perfectly intact stern of the Dresden, the Brummer’s magnificent bridge section and few sites can equal that of the Coln’s bow sitting proud of the seabed as a magnet for anemones, brittlestars and sponges. At certain times in the year fish life is so prolific that it can be difficult to see parts of the wreck.
Remains of the Rest
Salvage of the wrecks in Scapa Flow by the scrap metal merchants in the interwar years has left a considerable amount of wreckage on the seabed.
In the case of the SMS Bayern [a 28000 tonne batlecruiser], 4 main turrets were left on the bottom during the salvage operation. These each weigh in excess of 600 tonnes and sit 10m proud; they make an interesting alternative dive.
Others like the Derfflinger, Moltke, Seydlitz, Hindenberg and Von der Tann, names that played a huge part in the naval battles of the First World War, are there for the inquisitive diver to try and piece together
Other Wreck Sites
Popular sites, often used as a shallower second dive, include the F2, YC21 and the Rodean. Sitting in Gutter Sound, the F2 is a Second World War escort vessel in 17m of water. Adjacent to this also lays the YC21 salvage barge, which sank one stormy night following work on the F2.
HMS Rodean, a fleet minesweeper, sits in 16m of water in Longhope Bay. In addition, Gutter Sound was used as an anchorage by the British in both World Wars and is a great site for old bottles and artifacts which litter the seabed. The old adage “one mans rubbish is another’s treasure” spring to mind!
In Hoxa Sound the UB116 offers the opportunity to dive a German World War One submarine. Resting in 30m this site is very broken but recognisable features remain. This area is often blessed with exceptional visibility.
For the more experienced diver the James Barrie, an Icelandic fishing trawler lies in 45m and the Strathgary, a boom defence vessel, in 60m. Both of these deeper wrecks can make for memorable dives.
As the principle North Atlantic base for the British Fleet in both World Wars, there was obviously great importance placed on security of the area. To insure that no enemy vessels [surface or submarine] entered the Flow, large boom nets were put across the main entrances of Hoy and Hoxa sounds. These could be opened and closed to allow the British in and out whilst preventing others from entering at all. The smaller entrances not used by the British Fleet, were cleverly blocked by sinking unwanted steamships. Early in the Second World War these defences were breached by Gunther Prein in U47. He entered Scapa Flow and sank HMS Royal Oak with the loss of 833 lives. To prevent this happening again the Churchill Barriers (causeways) were constructed and now link mainland Orkney to South Ronaldsay. Today we classify the blockship wrecks into two groups, boat diving in Burra Sound and shore diving at the Churchill Barriers.
The 3 main dives in Burra sound are the Tabarka [2642 tonnes], Gobernador Bories [2332 tonnes] and the Doyle [1761 tonnes] all lying in 12-18m of water. Burra Sound is very tidal and dives can only be made at slack water meaning that the visibility is often exceptional.
The Gobernador is the most broken of the 3 wrecks but is an absolute magnet for marine life and divers often comment that the fish seemed to follow them for the whole dive. The Doyle is very intact and offers the possibility of some great swim through’s. The Tabarka is also very intact and was recently voted ‘Scotland’s best scenic dive’ by Diver Magazine. Being inside the wreck as the sunlight streams through has been likened to an underwater Cathedral.
Many other ships were also sunk in Burra sound and now lay very broken on the seabed. It is possible to do a drift dive here taking in the remains of the Inverlane, Budrie, Rotherfield, Ronda and the Urmstone Grange. Visiting divers often take some of their best memories from Burra sound.
The Churchill Barriers
These sites are mostly used as shore dives but some of the dive boats visit the wrecks at Churchill Barrier number 1, usually as part of a ‘Northern Isles’ dive trip.
Depths here tend to be a lot shallower than in Scapa Flow making it an ideal location for the beginner, the less experienced or those undertaking training courses.
At Barrier number 2 it is possible to dive the Lycia, Illsenstien, Cape Ortegal and the Emerald Wings. This site is best known for the image of a ships mast rising from the surface and it is a popular stopping place for visitors to Orkney. Underwater views are even better and it is possible to swim over large steam engines complete with boilers before passing over the ships hold and then to an intact bow where even the hand rails remain. The maximum depth here is 10m.
At Barrier number 3 the Empire Seaman, Martis and the Gartshore make interesting dives. The Gartshore is the most broken but the large amounts of the engine room remain as well as the propeller and steering gear. The Empire Seaman is probably the most intact wreck at the barriers, individual deck levels can be viewed with hatches and ladders joining different sections together, it also has some very nice swim throughs. The Martis is also reasonably intact and is a great wreck for marine life. Maximum depth here again is just 10m.
At the Churchill Barriers it is usual to dive more than one wreck in a single dive as they lay so close together. The conditions are excellent as there is no tide or current here so dives can be done at any time.
Whilst Orkney is famous for its wreck diving, there is also a large amount of scenic diving available. It is outside Scapa Flow and around the many smaller islands that Orkney’s scenic diving is at it’s best. Sites such as Inganess, the Old Man of Hoy, or the North Shoal are popular dives. As with a most scenic diving, the best marine life is in the shallows but for those who wish to go a little deeper there is the opportunity to do so.
Orkney can also be a great place for spotting marine mammals. There are colonies of both grey and common seals, several types of whale are also seen regularly as well as large amount of harbour porpoises and occasional dolphins. This is also an area famous for it’s important bird colonies and species such as Puffins, Guillemots and Skuas are all annual visitors to the area.
Whether your diving interest is wreck or reef, deep or shallow with or without a camera we are sure that Orkney can offer you a unique experience.
Copyright Scapa Scuba.
For information on Scapa Flow and the historic wrecks go to www.scapaflowwrecks.com