Scapa in November

It is true that it is cold, the weather is less predictable and the risk of getting blown out increases but the benefits are getting the German wrecks to yourselves and better visibility than in the warmer months.


We had originally planned to go in October and fill some spare places on someone else’s trip but Adam got appendicitis and we had to postpone. This meant that no boats where sailing and it looked like we could not go. Luckily Adam is mates with John Thornton who owns the MV Karin which operates out of Stromness. Luckily for us John, who was away diving in warmer climes, was happy for the two of us to have the boat for the week. The boat was skippered by its full time skipper John Phillips who proved to be a great skipper.

The trip up was the usual Marathon drive which on this occasion had stops in North Wales to pick up Adam and an overnight stay in Inverness.

The rest of the drive was as long and slow as it usually is but otherwise uneventful. There is a new ferry since I last visited Orkney and that is a big improvement on the last one. The new ferry is fast, stable and has everything you could need for the hour and half trip to Stromness. We took the car over so there was no messing around with putting kit in containers.

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The boat which has recently been refitted has everything you could want which was lucky as we had decided to stay on board. We did question the wisdom of that decision more than once. Obviously with just two of use we had all the space we could possible need. The living space was warm, dry and we had a good kitchen and saloon.

The diving was why we where there so on the first morning we where keen to get started. As I have dived the Flow several times and Adam has only ever been up there teaching Trimix and rebreather courses it was agreed I would lead the dives.

The first day we did SMS Brummer and SMS Koln. These are both cruisers and both lie on their sides. This allows divers to choose their depth down to a maximum of about 36m and dive the whole length of the ship. There are still plenty of things to see including the 5.9inch main armament and the armoured conning towers with all the wires that once ran the communications of the ship in battle. It is possible to look through the eye slots that would have been used during the Battle of Jutland in May 1916. Sadly the cruisers are deteriorating fast and in the six years since I first went there is very noticeable worsening of their condition.

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On day two we decided on SMS Konig which is one of the three battleships. SMS Konig was the lead ship of her class and one of four built, three remain upside down close together on a relatively level seabed. SMS Konig lies in 42 meters. SMS stands for Seiner Majestat Schiff which translates to His Majesty’s Ship

Konig is the least dived of the German fleet mainly because of its depth and the extensive damage done during the salvage operations. Despite this she is still worth diving. She is 176 meters long and displaced over 25,000 tonnes. This means that even an hour long dive won’t scratch the surface. We landed on top by the A frames that once supported the huge propellers but where salvaged long ago. I made the decision to swim forward along what would have been the starboard side. The damage is extensive and much of this is due to salvage. Most of the side plates have come off or are missing altogether and what was once the engine room is a shambles. There are shattered bits of turbine lying around. On that side we saw various bits of pipe that could easily be confused with guns but no actual guns.

We made it to the bow where a torpedo tube once fitted, this is long gone. After the bow we headed back along the port side and reached about the area of the forward main armament before heading up to start our decompression. I think the port side is the better dive and hopefully will remember this for my next visit.

SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm was our next target. This is the shallowest of the Battleships at 38m and to get the best of this dive it is important to go down the correct side. The ship is upside down but lies slightly over to one side. This allows access to the rear main armament. There was a semi permanent line to the stern and a further line leading to the big guns so that was easy. Straightaway we realised the visibility was a bit special and on the bottom a torch was not required. However I was here to see big guns and turrets and to investigate a hatch I had found three years earlier. To visit this area means swimming under a 25000 tonne battleship wrecked 86 years ago. After a few seconds to contemplate that thought I was swimming underneath while being careful not to disturb any silt. Being on open circuit meant there was nothing I could do to stop my bubbles bringing rust down from above. After a good swim around both turrets and the guns and investigating the holes in what was once the floor of the turrets it was time to find メmy hatchモ. This hatch is about a meter square and leads up into a compartment which has two vertical oval shaped hatches that lead fore and aft. This compartment proved to be very full of rust and silt, lying in the silt was what appeared to be a row of hydraulic levers. I believe the stern most hatch goes through the armour of the trunking that leads from the turret to the magazine and there where lots of ropes hanging down.

I was well into a dive to 38m and contemplating a solo penetration of a silt filled compartment, through a narrow hatch into a trunking that had at least some ropes inside. Even laying line this was not looking very sensible so I decided that discretion was the better part of valour.

Once we had both finished on the guns we headed to the stern where we found lots to look at in the great viz. We headed forward but by now the deco was racking up and there was nothing forward to rival what we had seen so it was time for tea and bacon sandwiches
Next morning we where off to visit the turrets that once belonged to SMS Bayern. The Bayern along with her Sister SMS Baden where the heaviest, most modern and powerful battleships that Germany had produced for the first war. Luckily for the British they where not at Jutland where their 8 15inch guns might well have caused major problems for the British Grand fleet.

Only the turrets remain as the ship was salvaged and in the lift all four of the 600 tonne turrets fell off. Each barrel alone weighted nearly 100 tonnes.

The shot had missed the turrets by some distance but the visibility was good and we were either skillful or lucky and found the first pair. The barrels have sunk into the sea bed so are not visible but it is possible to look down into the turret an see the massive breaches. We separately swam down into the breach areas which are below the seabed. Every time I dive the turrets I like them more and more but this time I was determined to find the other two. We had a bearing and once away from the first pair following a bearing and the depression in the seabed left by 28000 tonnes of battleship.

After what must have been over 100 meters the shapes appeared. Straight away this pair looked very different and Adam found a hatch with an armoured door leading straight down. With extreme care we entered this and found there was a swim through straight past the breaches and out through a hole in what is now the roof. For me this was the dive of the trip.

One of few second dives we did was on SMS Karleruhr which is the shallowest and most dived of the German wrecks. Like the other three cruisers she is on her side but is probably in the worst condition. Her guns are there and she has some interesting places. Probably my favourite place is in the steering gear underneath. I felt I have done this wreck lots and after what we had seen over the past couple of days on the battleships we decided to drift off her and find the starters to our evening meals. Adam cooked them in sausage fat left over from lunch and they where delicious.

We decided to do SMS Dresden next morning. Another cruiser in her side she has some swim throughs but care is required as large sections on wreckage are peeling away and much of the wreck is unstable. We also found time to pick up a few more scallops which I decided to carry. I would not usually remember this except we went through a below decks section with Adam leading. He decided on a route which needed a head first vertically down exit. This was made more interesting by the bag of scallops. One unusual thing about the Dresden is that there are small pools of oil on the seabed.

We had saved SMS Markgraf to last. She is the deepest and probably the most intact. The weather was awful and I was not looking forward to getting back on the boat, but once in the water there was little point in worrying about that for the next 70 minutes or so. The visibility was excellent and the 48 meters seemed like 20. We landed on the top of the wreck and had to swim up to the high side to drop to the seabed. To my surprise I could see underneath towards two main turrets which I did not know where visible on this wreck. Adam who had Trimix in his rebreather, confirmed however narked I was the guns where there. From the guns we headed to the bow passing the thick armour plates that are still attached to the huge hull. Looking up along the bow from the sea bed in such good visibility was an awe inspiring sight.

We where on the Markgraf at 11:00am on the 11th of November so this dive was our tribute to the fallen.

Scapa Flow contains some of the best wreck diving anywhere in Europe. The place is cold and bleak and was a major Navel base during both world wars. I can’t imagine a worst posting for a sailor during the wars, but it is full of history, including the internment of 74 ships of the German Highs Seas fleet in November 1918 and their subsequent massed scuttling in June 1919. Then came the eight years in which Ernest Cox bought a large part of the sunken fleet and salvaged it for scrap. This operation was taken over by Metal Industries and some other smaller companies also took part in savage operations. Other events include the blowing up of HMS Vanguard by internal explosion in 1917, the sinking of HMS Royal Oak by U47 at the beginning of WW2 taking 833 of her crew to their watery graves. This place is the last resting place of some of the leviathans that shaped the world we live in today but also has lots of dives that see few visitors. The block ships are also very popular with many divers and also played their part in the security of our country.