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Driving a minibus from London to Orkney seemed a good idea at the time, somehow rugged and traditional, none of this pampered aeroplane holiday diver business for us. We can spend the time sewing wetsuits out of sheets of raw rubber, and making our own reels from plywood as we go.
It seems a little less romantic after the thick end of two days wheezing along in an underpowered rental 'bus, seriously overloaded with dive bags, twinsets, stages, weightbelts, drysuits, etc, etc. It certainly brings the distance into perspective when you realise that Glasgow is only half way... The weather doesn't bode well either, most of the highlands being hidden behind driving rain.
North of Inverness, we come up to a car flipped on it's roof in the middle of the road, wheels practically still spinning. As a nurse, Gavin has to attend, the driver has crawled out, is shaken but doesn't appear to be seriously hurt - he says, this wasn't as bad as the last time - then I went through the windscreen...
Maybe a bit of his luck rubs off on us - though the ferry to the islands is thrown around like a dinghy by the force of a storm sweeping in from the North Atlantic, the sky starts to clear as we arrive in Stromness and unload the bus onto MV Karin, the next morning the sun comes out and it remains sunny and - unheard of - warm almost all of the week.
We get the gear on the deck (no theft problem here), sleeping bags unrolled on bunks, Tony installed in his own cabin (due to criminal snoring tendencies) and head off down the pub. Everyone is sleeping on board except for Syd and Tracey who have booked a B&B - Syd has been on the Karin before, and in his own words, 'over my dead body am I staying on that boat again'! Surely it can't be that bad? :-)
Dive 1: SMS Karlsruhe.
A clear morning, and after months of waiting it is dive time in Scapa... The only other group of divers on our week's first site are just coming out as we go in. It gets a bit crowded on the shotline for a minute or so, then we are all alone on the wreck of Kleine Kreuser Seiner Magistät Schiff Karlsruhe, the shallowest of the major remaining German High Seas Fleet wrecks.
The main draw for visiting divers, these huge ships were built in a fierce naval arms race leading up to - and one of the major causes of - the First World War. In the late 19th century, Germany watched her European neighbours making the leap to world power, and wanted in. But overseas empires require sea power, and while Germany had the world's most powerful army, she had almost no navy. Starting with a modest programme of naval construction, the scope grew until its stated intent was to create a navy capable of "inflicting serious damage on the world's most powerful fleet". Which was as good as naming the Royal Navy.
The opposite of Germany, as an island, Britain had a long naval history but a only a small standing army. The "two power policy" was to maintain a navy capable of winning an action against the combined fleets of the second and third largest sea powers combined, so the German programme was seen as a clear threat, and British construction was stepped up to keep the lead. By the time misunderstanding and suspicion had accelerated into war, the fleets facing each other across the North Sea were by far the largest and most modern in the world.
The wreck of the Karlsruhe lies, like the other light cruisers, on her side. The water is a comfortable thirteen degrees, deep green but clear and contrasty with little snow in the water, visibility about 8 metres. The shot is tied on close to where the bow guns have collapsed from the deck and settled into the silt. Forward a big school of cod shelters in the dark under the bow. All those years on the bottom have taken their toll, and from the bow we duck and weave over and under slumping armour and superstructure towards the stern.
The Karlsruhe has had the most blasting of the cruisers, a large section amidships reduced to flat plates where the copper components of the engine have been salvaged. Past this, pairs of bollards buckle the decking round the stern curve of the rear section, and at the peak a beautiful pillar covered in plumose anemones and dead mens fingers points upwards like a launch tower for the ascent.
Dive 2: V83.
In addition to the famous three battleships and four light cruisers, Scapa still holds three destroyers and a few giant heaps of scrap from the German fleet. The V83, most complete of the remaining destroyers, was lifted early in the salvage operation, and after being used to raise other ships was dumped in her present position close to the shore of Hoy.
The shotline is tied to the stump of the stern gun, draped by a long limp veil of kelp and long stringy weed. Tilted down a sloping bottom, the stern and rudder seem positively dainty after the cruiser this morning. It reminds me somehow of a cartoon Spanish galleon, the plating at the top of the hull fallen away leaving a rank of bare struts like cannon ports, the thick crusting of orange and grey sponges like fine gilded carvings.
The front section is increasingly broken, straggling up into water just a few metres deep, flattened hull plates buried under thick growth. Velvet swimming crabs scurry into crevices and scallops clap up and away as we pick through curtains of weed, individual floating strands coiling into thick ropes rising to the surface. Somewhere amidships, a second gun angles up from the wreckage, sitting in rings of cogged mechanism like a sundial.
MV Karin is a converted North Atlantic trawler, a sturdy old boat with a large kitting up space amidships. In true UK live-aboard style, accommodation is a little rough and ready but nothing worse than your average third world budget hostel.
John Thornton, the owner, Scapa diving and technical diving pioneer, is a looming presence in the wheelhouse. When he dives, he dives a thing that was once, a long time ago, an Inspiration CCR, but is, ah, somewhat modified. But then this is a man who earlier this year, after he caught his hand in the engine and ripped off the end of a finger, went straight from the hospital to the pub 'cause he "had to show the buggers it didn't bother me!"
John (little John), his mate has worked on the boat for three years, and despite knowing more theory than most of the divers on board has never been in the water. Just not interested. Still, that is often the way with working closely with something, maybe he's got to know too many of the irritating habits of divers.
Each evening we moor up in Stromness. Tonight we go to the other pub for food, and fall asleep with the soothing sound of Tony's snoring shaking the bulkheads.
Dive 3: SMS Brummer.
With another leisurely start time, again the only other boatload of divers on the Brummer (bluebottle, in German) are leaving as we go in. Conditions are the worst of the week, the water is gritty with plankton and it is dark at depth. Landing on the upturned port side in the reduced viz, the metal hull streches away flat into the distance in all directions like a sea bed with portholes, and it takes a moment to locate the rail and the vertical deck.
When the German government offered an armistice to end the hostilities of WWI, one of the conditions of Allied acceptance was that the majority of the High Seas Fleet be interned in an Allied port, hostage to good behaviour. To satisfy this, on Thursday 21 Nov 1918 seventy four named German warships were met by an overwhelmingly vast combined fleet of over two hundred and fifty allied ships - the greatest assembly of naval might in history - and escorted into Scapa Flow.
The ships remained German, under a German commander, Rear-Admiral von Reuter - but all guns had been disabled by removal of their firing mechanisms, and their crews were reduced to an absolute minimum. The small stocks of coal and oil that they were permitted were barely enough to drive out the Orkadian cold, and certainly too little to get up a useful head of steam in the engines. Conditions on board were miserable, morale was bitterly low and many ships were on the brink of mutiny.
As the end of the amistice aproached, it seemed impossible that a peace settlement would be reached. However, in the last few days of the armistice the German Chancellor, principal opponent of the treaty, resigned, and a two day extension to reach agreement was granted.
Unfortunately, nobody thought to tell Reuter. Isolated in Scapa flow, his only sources of information were out of date British newspapers, and on 21st June 1919 he was forced to assume that hostilities had resumed and his fleet was again at war. With no guns to fight and no fuel to escape, his only chance of preventing his ships being captured and maintaining any kind of naval honour was to scuttle them first.
On a pre-arranged signal, trusted officers on every ship opened sea-cocks and valves, and many ships raised their forbidden fleet colours. Ships of this size take their time scuttling, and after two hours of slow settling, the first capital ship to go, the battleship Friedrich Der Grosse abruptly turned turtle and went down roaring in a whirlpool of oil and flotsam.
In the chaos, the British fleet raced back from exercises into the Flow, and frantically tried to beach as many vessels as possible. Despite their efforts, a total of fifty two - including all five battlecruisers and all but one of the eleven battleships - went to the bottom. The last to sink in this greatest ever act of naval suicide was the Battlecruiser Hindenberg, taking over six hours.
Five of the eight light cruisers sank, and four of them are still in Scapa. Down in the dark water on the Brummer, we follow the portside rail all the way forward. The sharp horizontal curve of the bow is covered by cup corals, and literally crawling with thousands of brittlestars. Further back, a single gun, the big drum of the armored control tower and the empty frame of the bridge slump down from the body of the wreck.
Ascending out of the dark at Gavin's air table limits is like waking from an ominous dream. Big John comes out of the water calling conditions 'crap', but it still beats an average day on the south coast...
Brunch and surface interval is taken moored up in the old naval base at Lyness. Dave, Susanna and I visit the naval cemetry, rows of graves of men from ships whose names resonate with history, and the eight graves of German sailors who died during the scuttle, the last casualties of the great war.
Dive 4: F2.
The 760 tons of WWII German destroyer F2 are lying on their side not far from Lyness. The front section is pretty intact, with a 4.1 inch gun and some fun looking holes under the bridge. Further back the shape of the wreck gets increasingly hard to make out, not only because it has been blown apart by salvors, but also because of the clouds of pollack and bib which keep getting in the way.
Taking a bearing, we swim off over the silt in search of an armed barge which should be close by, but see nothing but silt, weeds and some entertaining alphabetti spagetti starfish. We were probably swimming in circles, blame it on all that metal playing silly buggers with my compass.
As we dock up back in Stromness, we are treated to the sight of Dave and Susanna running to move out of the front cabin and into Syd and Tracey's B&B. Fair enough, it does still smell like the fish locker it used to be, and probably isn't the ideal place for a newly married couple to spend a holiday...
Dive 5: SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm.
Now for the big one... The Kronprinz is the shallowest of the three German battleships, the shotline tied to a flat section of her bottom plates in just 15 metres. The rope leads over a dark and jagged edge, and down, and down, and down... Free falling past a succession of colossal metal buttresses, even after eighty years of settling and decay the sea bed is a full twenty metres below the top of the hull. The cruisers are big, but this is on an entirely different scale. There seems to be less living on this wreck, as though even the sealife finds it a dark and forbidding place.
When WWI broke out, both the High Seas Fleet and the Grand Fleet were spoiling for a showdown. The closest they came, the battle of Jutland, wasn't the conclusive encounter they were looking for, made incomplete by poor weather, mist and fog, but it stands as the only fleet action between dreadnought ironclads there will ever be.
The British lost more ships and more men, hampered more than helped by the weight of history and tradition, yet the day after returning to port the Grand Fleet could announce it was again ready for sea at 24 hours notice. The better technology of the Germans got more damaged ships home, but many of those that did limp home took months to be made seaworthy again, and the High Seas Fleet never again challenged for supremacy of the North Sea.
In life, the 25,390 ton bulk of the Kronprinz Wilhelm was nearly six hundred feet long and a hundred feet wide - almost as long, and much wider than a Natwest Tower, clad in foot-thick steel armour, home to a full compliment of over 1,100 men. In action, sailors below decks on these ships couldn't tell the difference between a direct hit from the enemy and a round from their own twelve inch guns - both shook the entire vessel with deafening, lightbulb shattering noise.
Like the other battleships, as she scuttled the weight of her guns and armour pulled her upside down, crushing her superstructure into the silt. Diving her now more than anything deserves the description a wall of steel - there are cavernous black holes underneath the armoured side to peer into, but the brobdingnagian scale makes it difficult to recognise anything. A lifeboat davit is the size of a church arch, a huge mast sticks brokenly out from under the hull and sprawls off out of sight. We don't identify the big guns, but we could have swum straight past them - half buried in the silt, their ten metre long barrels would strech out on both sides to the limits of visibility.
After twenty minutes of crawling like ants along the bottom, NDL and SPG limits arrive. We find a wide flat area on the top of the hull to send up our buoy, and floating off into open water more mountain ranges of steel pass by underneath before finally surfacing back into the sunlight.
There are no dreadnoughts left afloat anywhere in the world. Made obsolete by the torpedo and the submarine, the majority were broken up and sold, exploited for their thousands of tons of prime metal. Many of the others are sunk in deep water within reach only of submersibles.
Scapa Flow contains five of the very few exceptions - HMS Royal Oak and HMS Vanguard, both war graves and prohibited to sport divers, and the three battleships of the High Seas Fleet. SMS König, SMS Markgraf and SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm are among the last of their kind, and bobbing on the surface in the sun waiting for our pickup, it has been surprisingly moving to dive on one of them.
Dive 6: Gobernador Bories.
The tides have come round so that this afternoon we can dive on the Burra sound blockships. Sunk in the shallow channel from the open sea to prevent submarine entry, the tides are fierce and slack water brief. However, all that current sweeps away the silt and forcefeeds nutrient to the copious life; diving in clear, bright North Atlantic water surrounded by colourful fish is completely different to diving in the Flow, like two diving trips in one.
We don't find much ship shaped on the 'Governor' Bories (whoever he was), everything seems fairly low rise, but then it would, compared to the immense architecture of the German fleet. We swim through a little maze of steel cloisters thickly overgrown by dancing kelp, like a secret garden.
Dave and Susanna are in macro hunting mode, and point out my first UK nudibranchs - delicate little spikey things only half an inch long, translucent with hints of blue or pink, and the entire dive we are pestered by pushy ballan and cuckoo wrasse looking for a handout. Looking up from twelve metres, it seems strange to be in the UK and to be able to clearly see the surface...
An early afternoon dive means a chance to go sightseeing, so off to Maes Howe, an ancient chambered tomb, older than the pyramids, where archeology graduate Ian has a splendid opportunity to really irritate the tour guide by knowing more than him.
Dive 7: Doyle.
At dinnner last night, I felt more than usually fatigued, took an early night and skip this morning's dive. So of course the weather is bright sun, cloudless eggshell blue sky and dead calm. The largest ripples on the blue/back surface of the flow are bubbles rising from the bastards enjoying their dive of the week so far on the Köln, followed by the Tech Nitrox students on the Markgraf. Obviously worn out from the strain of their great dive this morning, most people opt to take their fizz break this afternoon, and the four of us who go in have the dive to ourselves.
As soon as we arrive on the wreck I come face to face with a diving Skua, complete with a particularly large and vicious looking beak. I don't much fancy a dogfight with the thing 15 metres down so try to strike a friendly and bird-harmless pose, and after giving me a good looking over it swims on up towards the surface. Strange that the creature I've felt most threatened by underwater should be a temporary visitor like us.
It is not even close to slack water down here, the current is so strong the least undignified way of getting about is pulling yourself around with your hands. Grovelling round underneath the cutaway stern, the prop and rudder are still in place and strike impressive shapes against the light. Well down on the sea bed in the shelter of the lee side of the wreck, the hull is tilted to expose the keel, Gavin finds a dark hole with hefty resident conger underneath.
The current is still too strong for us to be bothered thrashing our way round the exposed bow, so we reverse to the broken middle section and and pull ourselves inside through lashing kelp. From amidships forward the hull is in one piece, with four open levels of decking tilted thirty degrees. Swimming forward, the interior reveals itself bit by bit in the milky light til the bow appears, a ring of missing plates giving a viewing gallery to watch the world outside sweep by.
Dive 8: SMS Dresden.
The Johns were out last night, and Big John doesn't show his face til after the first dive, leaving little John to take the ship out of harbour and get us in the water.
Tony and I drop over the wrong side, ahem, I mean, take the opportunity to admire the fine keel of this impressive wreck before passing under the rakish bow, still defiantly proud of the sea bed after 80 years. Round on the right side, erm, that is, the highly overrated deck side, the round armored conning tower is still complete with range finder, the usual giants climing frame is the decayed remains of the bridge, and a couple of lifeboat davits curve out like whale ribs from far above to end past us in the sand.
The twenty two ships of the scuttling fleet that the the allies sucessfully beached were mostly destroyers and light cruisers, and only accounted for about 5% of the total tonnage. The navy had a brief look at the others, decided they couldn't be raised, and sold them off cheap as scrap. At first, you could pick up a battleship for 250 quid! The private salvors who bought them worked ingeniously and determinedly on the sunken fleet for decades, again and again pushing the limits of what was possible.
The remaining guns of SMS Dresden are at the back, and the wreck sits on a gentle and deceptive slope. Going into overdrive to pass a couple of silt-kickers, our depth creeps up and I guess I must get narked, I become a bit fixated on reaching the bang sticks and the details are rather vague...
Past the twin guns, we head back up the side of the hull to where it falls away at the blast site over the engines. Everyone else seems to be blobbing off from the same point, there are lines and bubbles all over the place as we start our slow ascent, but we soon leave them behind, just two dark shapes floating in a green world, watching lions manes and moon jellies dancing by.
Dive 9: Tabarka.
Another bright sunny afternoon in Burra sound. The tidal race is still rip roaring when we arrive, so Big John puts us in the water upstream, to get quickly down to the bottom and ride the current up to the wreck. Soon the hull comes into view, and a dark hole leads into the interior.
Eyes ajusting quickly to the semi dark, we are in a huge space inside the stern. The Tabarka is upside down, and though this is a full penetration dive, spent entirely inside the hull, the clear water, open spaces and absence of silt mean there is no need to run a line. There are enough bright exit holes down where the hull meets the sea bed, and the darkness overhead makes the dim backlighting magical.
The driveshaft housing above runs forward through the bars of a decayed bulkhead to the engine room, with three huge boilers lying side by side and the triple expansion engine hanging from the 'floor' like the pipes of an organ. But then a seal joins us, and who cares about engineering anyway? The seal teases us with a cursory chew of our fins, but then spots Gavin and Steve coming the other way. Nothing amuses a seal more than sneaking up behind an unsuspecting diver, and Gavins yellow fins get pounced on and viciously shaken.
Past the cage of another bulkhead the keel has collapsed into an ampitheatre, this open space bright after the rest of the hull. Back into the darkness further on, the frames of two levels of decking strech forward out of sight. A school of small pollack hang between the floors, silhouetted against the soft light. Any architect who could capture this exalted atmosphere would be a genus - I'm having practically a religious experience in here.
Squeezing through a final tight set of bars into the bow, half a blissful hour has passed. We look at each other. "Up"? "Stuff that, lets keep swimming!" It is so good we do the whole thing again, completely blowing our dive plan. The seal comes and plays with us again, the pollack are still circling.
Fifty minutes arrives, and we very reluctantly accept that since we were first in and are going to be last out we probably ought to leave. We leave the wreck through the hole in top above the bright ampitheatre. Tony decides to try and show off by firing the blob on his own, which is commendable, and would have been even more impressive if he hadn't been under the roof at the time. The blob comes to rest firmly inside... He has a 'This is going to come back and haunt me' look on his face as I pull it out to open water with a wink.
And off into the current... we've been down so long the tide has completely reversed, and is running fast in the other direction, riding along at 6m we get carried past the bows of the Doyle 200 metres further along the sound.
Dive of the week, and possibly the greatest dive I've ever done...
Dive 10: SMS Köln.
At the bottom of the shotline a dense cloud of silversides pour themselves round the remains of the starboard rail, and flicker and gleam through the struts of the bridge. The Köln is the most intact of the cruisers, and after a week the layout is familiar, we confidently head for the stern and the two remaining guns.
Down on the bottom, examining the masts scattered over rolling silt, first a large seal loops past us, then a second, smaller with white head and shoulders glowing eerily in the dark like a ghost. They duck in and out of the dark interior, along walkways and through broken bulkheads with a lot more confidence than any human could have this deep in this conditions...
At the back, the two rear guns sit with their blast shields in place, both barrels tilted slightly up. My Stinger has crept a little into deco at this point, we weren't planning on doing major deco, so we follow the curve of the hull up, a line of portholes dark holes punched through the encrustation.
Dive 11: UB-116.
And the last dive of the week. U-Boat 116 was detected by hydrophones and detector loops trying to sneak into the Flow late in WWI. First blown up by remote control mine, then, for good measure, generously depth charged, and finally blown up from inside by her own torpedoes, there isn't much in the way of U-boat shape left. The remains are straggled out, never more than a couple of metres high, on a featureless plain of silt. As usual, the local wrasse, conger and ling welcome the break from the surrounding monotony.
NDL comes all too soon on a weak mix at this depth (my only criticism of the Karin is the reluctance - pleading lack of time - to do nitrox fills in the afternoon), and my pooter - set to 21 percent - soon clocks up a couple of minutes of deco. My stage is still full of nitrox 35 so I switch to that as we go back up the shotline, the ceiling clearing before the end of the 9m stop.
As a diver, it is impossible not to feel a tiny, purely selfish pang of regret that the salvors couldn't have been less determined, and had left just a few more down there... What about the Hindenberg, which sank upright, and whose funnels and masts stood above the water for eleven years. Or the Derfflinger, over two hundred metres long, whose hull rose out of the Flow like an island til she was raised just before WWII. Or the Bayern, 28,000 tons - at the time one of the heaviest ships in the world - which features heeling drunkenly over in the act of sinking, on endless Scapa posters, T-shirts and books.
But that would be greedy... together with the many other superb dives, the small remnant of the Grand Fleet that is gently decaying here still makes this the wreck capital of Europe.
'Dive Scapa Flow', Rod MacDonald - the standard text on Scapa diving.
'The Grand Scuttle', Dan Van Der Vat - The full history of the High Seas Fleet and the Scuttle.
All content © COPYRIGHT Huw Porter