Sunday, 3 June 2012

Guide: Diving Scapa Flow & the Northern Isles

Scapa Flow and the Northern Isles
The Orkney islands lie approximately 10 miles off the north coast of Scotland, and have some of the best dive sites in the UK, particularly if you are fond of shipwreck and with over 70 islands forming the archipelago, there is no shortage of coastline and dive sites to explore. Broadly speaking however, there are two major areas to dive in – Scapa Flow in the south, or the Northern Isles in the north.

Divers completing a safety stop in the clear waters of Scapa Flow
A diver making his way to the bows of the Koln
A diver swimming alongside the Koln
Fish school around the wreck of the Koln. 
Gun turret on the F2 (WW2)
Gobernador Bories
The Oceana is fairly broken up now, but is covered in marine life
A diver inside the Endeavour
The outside of the Endeavour is covered in soft corals
Divers on the James Barrie
The bows of the James Barrie
The bridge deck and winch mechanisms still in place on the James Barrie.
The Jean Elaine coming to pick us up 

Scapa Flow is a sheltered sea area surrounded by the southern Orkney Islands, the largest of which are the Mainland, Hoy and South Ronaldsay. These islands keep the Flow sheltered from the worst of the weather, effectively creating a natural harbour which has been used by people for thousands of years to find shelter for themselves and their vessels. More recently it was exploited by the British navy during both the first and second world wars, when it was used as a major naval base to control access to the northern North Sea. The ships that sank during those conflicts and still remain under the waves in Scapa Flow are probably the greatest attraction to the divers who visit the islands every year.

To see more underwater photographs, and pictures from Scapa Flow, have a look at the Underwater gallery.

Map of the Orkney Islands and Scapa Flow
From Wikimedia Commons

The northern isles by comparison have no such military history, but have plenty to offer in their own right. Outside the shelter of Scapa Flow, the waters in the north of Orkney are subject to stronger tides and are more exposed to the weather meaning that diving is not always possible in all places. However, these currents serve to keep the water much clearer than could be expected in Scapa Flow and maintain a great variety of marine life to keep the biologists and scenic divers happy. There are plenty of shipwrecks around the Northern Isles as well, and while they might not be steeped in the history of the military wrecks of the flow, can still be absolutely stunning to visit.

Wrecks of Scapa Flow: German High Seas Fleet
The most famous wrecks in Scapa Flow are probably the seven remaining battleships and light cruisers from the German High Seas Fleet which was scuttled following the end of World War One. After the armistice was declared in 1918 at the end of World War 1, the High Seas Fleet of the German navy was interned in Scapa Flow with its fate to be decided by the Treaty of Versailles. The peace talks lasted months, and eventually in May 1919, it was declared that the German fleet was to be surrendered to the allied forces much to the displeasure of Rear-Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, commander of the German fleet. He immediately began making plans to scuttle the fleet rather than hand it to the allies, but didn’t have an opportunity to carry them out until 21st June 1919 when all but two of the British vessels that had been guarding the interned force left Scapa Flow for training exercises. Staffed only by skeleton crews, the allied forces did not consider the German navy to be any further threat to them and not worth keeping under constant heavy guard. The message took about an hour to pass between the German vessels, and they acted shortly after. Over the course of a single morning, 74 warships were scuttled and sank.

Following the end of WW1, most of those vessels were salvaged for scrap, with only seven of the 74 warships now resting underwater in the Flow: the cruisers Karlsruhe, Dresden, Brummer and Koln, and the battleships Konig, Kronprinz Wilhelm, and the Markgraf. These wrecks now lie in approximately 30-45m of water inside Scapa Flow and more information on each of the wrecks can be found on the photo pages themselves. Because they are in sheltered waters, they can be dived at any state of the tide and aside from the depth, are relatively easy to dive. That’s not to say that anyone can dive these wrecks – most dive trips to Scapa Flow last a week and decompression requirements can quickly add up, meaning that anyone wanting to dive here needs to be well prepared and a skilled diver. All seven of the wrecks are still in relatively good condition, but my personal favourite of the group is the Koln. This particular wreck is more or less intact, lies on its starboard side, and seems to be a particularly attractive spot for shoals of fish. I have dived it several times in the summer months, and each time it has been swarming with shoals of juvenile fish, which were sometimes so densely packed that it was impossible to see the wreck for the fish even if we were only a couple of metres away from it! I admit, I am generally more interested in marine life than wrecks for their own sake, but when you can have both, it makes for some excellent diving. 

The blockships were merchant vessels that were commandeered and deliberately sunk by the British navy to try and block the entrances to Scapa Flow from German U-boats during the Second World War. the three remaining vessels lie in Burra sound, and are the wrecks of the Doyle, the Tabarka and the Gobernador Bories. They all lie in about 10-20m of water, but must be dived at slack due to the very fast currents in the sound. However, the increased tides do make for some nice visibility, and these blockships are usually clearer dives than the other wrecks in the Flow.

Of the three, the Tabarka is generally regarded as the best. I dived this wreck for the first time about 5 years ago, and it was stunning. There's typically a LOT of current on the blockships, but after battling our way down and dragging ourselves through the kelp over the top of the ship we made it inside what appeared to be a giant underwater barn. The visibility was about 30m with sunlight streaming through the sides of the wreck. Unfortunately, the wreck seems to have deteriorated quite badly in the last few years, and when we dived it in 2008 and 2010 it was a real squeeze to get inside what were once wide, spacious holes along the sides. And that was after 10 minutes trying to find them! The marine life is still really nice along the outside of the wreck though, with loads of filter feeders and anemones covering the edges.

The Gobernador Bories and Doyle are still quite intact around the stern and boiler rooms, and the bow of the Gobernador Bories is still intact as well I believe.

Wrecks of the Northern Isles
I dived in the Northern Isles for the first time in 2008, and was really surprised by the quality of the wrecks outside of Scapa Flow. Outside of the shelter of the Flow, many of the shipwrecks around the Northern Isles lie in quite tidal areas and have to be dived at slack water. However, the benefit of this is that marine life thrives in tidal conditions and the visibility can be excellent. There are dozens of wrecks around Orkney that can be dived, but the ones we visited were the Oceana (tug), Endeavour (trawler), and Loch Garry (boom defence vessel). Of these, the Endeavour was by far the most memorable, being covered in dead men’s fingers and full of fish with around 30m visibility. It was also easy to enter inside the bows of the vessel, and was a great setting for some wide-angle shots. The Oceana was also quite a nice, atmospheric wreck for photographs, but was much more broken up with only the skeleton structure remaining.

One wreck which is worthy of special mention though, and which can be dived as part of either a Scapa Flow or Northern Isles trip is the wreck of the James Barrie. This wreck lies in about 42m of water in a highly tidal area making it probably one of the most advanced-level dives in the area. However, if you can get the right tide and the right group to dive with you will be rewarded by a dive on an intact 60m trawler with visibility up to 30-40m. The ship itself lies on its starboard side and since there are still nets in the forward holds it is worth approaching it with a bit of caution! But the view on the ship itself is stunning. I’m not sure these photographs really do it justice, but I hope you enjoy them! 

Getting there
To get to Orkney, you can travel by ferry either from Aberdeen (about 3 hours north of Glasgow) or Scrabster (around 5 hours north of Glasgow) to Stromness. I believe there is also the option to fly, but this is much more expensive, and more hassle with dive kit.

There are a huge number of dive boats to choose from, but our club have generally dived from the liveaboards MV Jean Elaine or MV Sharon Rose ( for the last few years, and they have always provided excellent service, diving and advice.

All images shown in this article and more can be seen in the Underwater gallery.