After the end of the First World War, the German High Seas Fleet was interned in Scapa Flow in Orkney. The allies couldn't agree what to do with the ships, so they were left for some time with a skeleton crew. In June 1919, the Germans heard the hostilities were about to break out and the order went out to scuttle the entire fleet. In all over 70 ships were sunk. The subsequent salvage operation was the biggest in history and most of the wrecks were salvaged. However, there are still 4 cruisers and 3 battleships in Scapa Flow for today's diver to visit.
Getting to Orkney is difficult. There is an airport on Kirkwall, but only British Airways fly there and they charge accordingly. The airport is also closed on Sundays. There is a ferry from Aberdeen and flying there isn't too expensive, but there's still the problem of the kit. In the end, we decided to drive up to Scrabster and take the shorter ferry journey from there. Scrabster is a long way from just about anywhere. It took us over 14 hours from the south east of England. When we got to Glasgow, we were only half way there.
We arrived at Scrabster early on Saturday morning and had a full, cooked breakfast at a local hotel to try to wake ourselves up. We did find it quite amusing that some of the other guests were wearing kilts to breakfast and that they all had American accents. Then we went down to the P&O terminal to see if we could find a container. These are provided free for you to load your kit up into. However, they don't let you book them and they don't guarantee that there are going to be any. Fortunately we were there early and got one.
The trip was a UKRS trip organised through the uk.rec.scuba newsgroup. I'd met most of the people before, but there were a few new faces on board. We were booked on the MV Karin, which is skippered by John Thornton. The plan was to stay on the boat and dive from Sunday until Friday. John is an IANTD trimix instructor, so both nitrox and trimix fills are available. About half of our group decided that they wanted to do the IANTD Tech Nitrox course during the week.
The ferry goes into Stromness and the MV Karin is very close by, so we didn't have too many problems unloading the kit although the tide was low. The accommodation on the boat is pretty basic. We'd brought our own sleeping bags with us, though pillows were provided. There was one proper toilet, one sea head, a chemical toilet and 2 showers. The showers were on totally independent hot water supplies. This proved to be rather fortunate because one of the systems packed in halfway through the week. There was also a tumble dryer on board, so that you could dry off any flooded undersuits. It also proved useful for the towels, which never dried in the damp atmosphere. I'm sure mine got wetter when I hung it up after a shower. If you don't want to stay on the boat, finding a B&B in Stromness wouldn't be too difficult. It does remove the option of falling out of bed 30 minutes before the dive though.
Unlike most liveaboards, food is not included. John's crewman does do a cooked breakfast for an extra £5 a day. We all decided to go for this and it was probably the best decision we made. It was typically served after the first dive, and so was more brunch than breakfast, and it was quite enough to see you through to dinner with the occasional snack. We made the mistake of buying a load of food and I don't think most of it got eaten.
Stromness itself has a few pubs, which serve food, a chippy, a recompression chamber, a few shops, a dive shop and a cafe. The chippy is shut on Thursdays, which is also the day that most people end up in the chamber with bends. We weren't entirely convinced that this was a coincidence. The Ferry Inn seemed to be the most lively pub and it was also the only place where you could get a decent lager. The food wasn't bad, though rather a lot of it was deep-fried, so it wasn't that healthy. Still we were on holiday.
On the Saturday we arrived the sun came out and lulled us into a false sense of security. We didn't see it again until the next Friday. Sunday started off pretty grey and stayed that way. Our first dive was on the SMS Coln. The wreck is a 5400 ton light cruiser and, like all the cruisers, it is lying on its side. The water was a balmy 12C and the visibility wasn't that good either. It varied between about 4m-6m. My maximum depth was just over 34m, though I'm sure you could get another couple on it if you tried. There didn't seem to be that many fish on the wreck, but it wasn't a bad dive and there was plenty of it.
Our second dive was on the blockship the Gobernador Bories. This was a 2300 ton freighter which was sunk in the channel south of Stromness to make it harder for the U-boats to sneak in. The viz was better on the wreck because it's in the current stream. There were lots of big wrasse around which were obviously used to being fed sea urchins which were also around in large numbers.
On Monday, we dived the SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm. This was was a 26000 ton battleship. The battleships all turned upside down as they sunk, so it's important to go down the correct side of them otherwise you don't see that much. Somehow we managed to go down the wrong side, so it was mostly solid hull in front of us. There were a few holes, but again the viz was only 4m and it was all rather green and gloomy down at 36m. It's probably quite a good dive if you go down the correct side. It's certainly very big.
Our second dive of the day was the Tabarka, which is also a blockship. It lies in about 16m of water and to get the most out of the dive, you need to get inside the hull. Once inside there are loads of fish and the whole structure is covered in sponges. The current ensures that there is no silt and there are plenty of holes to let the light in. This wreck proved to be my favourite of the whole trip.
On Tuesday we decided to do the James Barrie. This was a trawler that sunk in 1969. Because it's not really inside the Flow, the viz is good on it. We went down the shot and found the wreck pretty much intact, lying on its side in 42m. The viz was good at around 10m. The depth means you don't get too long on the wreck, but it is small enough for you to see the whole thing without incurring too much deco. We swum right up to the bows and then came back to the shot, which lies near the stern. Coming up the shot, there were loads of jellyfish including lion's manes. These are so-called because they are supposedly a golden brown colour, but they just look dirty brown and evil to me, especially when I'm underwater with them. Their sting can be very nasty. Several of us picked up minor stings as the tentacles were everywhere including wrapped around the shotline.
For our second dive, we dived the UB-116. I had never managed to dive a submarine before, despite four abortive attempts. Apparently it was fairly intact until the 1970s when the Navy discovered there was a live torpedo in the tubes. The subsequent controlled explosion wasn't, so the wreck is pretty smashed up. Still the various bits of wreck provided something to look at. The only really identifiable parts were the ballast tanks and an anti-aircraft gun. The viz was quite good at 10m and it lies in about 28m.
That night we stayed in Burray. It was the only time we didn't return to Stromness. There's not a lot in Burray other than a pub, a school, a shop that shuts for lunch and a dive shop. Still the food was OK in the pub and they did have decent lager, so it made a change.
The next morning we dived the James Barrie again, largely because several people hadn't dived it the day before. Whilst I enjoyed it the first time, I didn't think it was good enough or big enough to dive two days in a row. I'd seen most of it the first time, though I did have a bit of a poke around near the wheelhouse the second time. The second dive was the F2 which was an escort vessel. The bows were fairly intact, though it was very broken up at the rear. It did have a large gun on it and there were loads of fish. The depth was 16m and the viz was the usual gloomy 4m.
On Thursday we planned to do the Markgraf. This is another battleship and it is the deepest of all the German wrecks lying in about 43m. Like the other battleships, it is upside down but this time we managed to find the right side by the simple measure of following the shot to the seabed. The viz was the usual 5m and it was pretty gloomy down there. We went down around midships and headed towards the stern. Along the way we spotted a gun and what looked like a bathroom though the portholes. At the end we came up to the propshaft and bagged off there. It wasn't a bad dive, though I suspect you need to do several dives on her before you can fully appreciate it and find your way around.
However, it is a fairly advanced dive and there have been a number on incidents on it. I wouldn't say that it was a wreck worth pushing your personal limits to do. I think it's quite easy to get a bit complacent after you've done a few days diving on a week's holiday.
The second dive of the day was the Karlsruhe which was another cruiser. It lies on its side and is quite intact apart from the heavily salvaged section in the centre. We got about 25m on it, though we could have had a couple more and had plenty of time to cover almost the whole of the wreck. There are a couple of guns, which I just had to sit astride and a big anchor chain at the front.
On the last day, Friday, we did the SMS Brummer, another cruiser. It was similar to the Karlsruhe though more intact. The depth was about 33m. By the afternoon it had started to pick up a bit. We really wanted to do the Tabarka again, though by the time we arrived a number of people had dropped out. This time we spent the whole dive inside the wreck. The most impressive sight was the engine room. Three big boilers lay at the bottom inside the big room. It was probably the best dive of the holiday and a real high point to end the week on.
That night we packed up our container and headed to the Ferry Inn for a final group meal. John couldn't make it, but he'd left instructions behind the bar to pay for some wine, which was very good of him. It was also karaoke night, so a couple of us had a go. Freddy Mercury must have been turning in his grave at my rendition. All in all, it was a good night to end a good week and I greatly appreciated the civilised Scottish licensing laws. Why can't the pubs in England open until 2am?