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Guest post by Suzanne Easton from Meandering Wild
Scapa Flow is a large natural harbor in the Orkney Islands. This small collection of islands is located 8 miles north of the Scottish Mainland and is reached by ferry or a short flight. The islands are quiet and remote with storms blowing through year-round. Their remote location however makes diving in Scapa Flow something special.
The Ins & Outs of Diving in Scapa Flow
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What makes diving Scapa Flow so special?
Scapa Flow has a hidden draw for divers. In the First World War, the Orkney Islands played a vital role in the operations within the North Atlantic and North Sea. As part of the Armistice agreement Germany had to surrender most of its fleet and 74 of the German High Seas Fleet was interred in Scapa Flow. Thinking the peace talks had failed the entire fleet was scuttled with 52 ships being lost. A massive salvage operation took place and now only 7 of the ships remain on the seabed – today a great reason to dive in Scapa Flow!
Best time to dive Scapa Flow
Scapa Flow can be dived year-round although the winter months bring unpredictable weather and rough sea conditions. The main diving season is between April and October when the air temperature is warmer, and the water is calmer.
In the summer months, the water temperature starts at around 12 °C warming up to 19 °C with an air temperature being anywhere between 5 °C and 20 °C. While it is possible to dive in a wetsuit it is much more comfortable in a 7 mm semi-dry or full drysuit.
The visibility in Scapa Flow can be anywhere from 0.5 m to 20 m depending on the wind and weather conditions. Outside of the Flow, the visibility is often better where the strong currents and minimal river runoff lead to beautiful clear seas.
Scapa Flow Wrecks & Other Dive Sites
The Kronprinz Willhelm is one of three battleships that can be dived in Scapa Flow. She sits in about 34 m of water on her starboard side with much of the superstructure embedded in the silty seabed. She is a little shallower than the other battleships and you will find the top of the hull between 12 m and 15 m making it an enjoyable dive for any level of diver.
The hull is covered in sponges and anemones and the only thing that differentiates it from the seabed is the lines of rivets. Dropping over the edge of the hull the dive is gloomy as you are in the shadow of the wreck but at about 30 m the bulwark rail can be seen, and this is where you can begin to explore the superstructure. This is a huge wreck and it will take several dives to work out exactly what each part is that you are seeing.
The SMS Brummer was a mine-laying cruiser and lays on her starboard side in 36 m of water. She is intact although she is slowly collapsing, and each dive is different.
Given her smaller size, she can be explored in just one dive. The bridge is still recognizable and is coated in a layer of sponges and dead man’s fingers while the bow is beautiful with a curved shape. The port and starboard anchor chains still run across the deck and around two capstans. The stern section is relatively undamaged by salvage operations and the stern mast lays across the seabed and it is possible to explore the steering engine and the engine room which were opened up during the salvage work.
The SMS Karlsruhe is another cruiser, but the salvage works were more basic resulting in her being a jumbled mess. She sits at 25 m depth making it possible to have a longer dive. The salvage operations also mean that is possible to explore without the need to penetrate the wreck in any way.
The SMS Karlsruhe had 12 boilers, and these are now exposed. The boiler tubes are huge and home to conger eels and large crabs. Towards the stern section, it is possible to see the rudder although the propellors are no longer on the wreck.
The Churchill Barriers were built during the Second World War to prevent submarines from entering Scapa Flow after the sinking of HMS Royal Oak while she was at anchor. These huge block-built barriers join a small chain of islands to Orkney Mainland and are calm and sheltered in most weather conditions.
If you are looking for a shallow dive, then the Churchill Barriers are the perfect location. They can be dived from the shore and are covered in life from plumose anemones to nudibranchs and tiny blennies.
The maximum depth is about 10 m and there are also some smaller wrecks to explore on the light shale sea floor just a short distance from the barriers.
While the focus in Orkney is diving in Scapa Flow, there are other beautiful scenic dives. One of the best is around the wreck of the Tomalina. This wreck sits in a gully right under the Noup Head Lighthouse.
The entry and exit can be difficult as the rocks are unforgiving, but the dive is beautiful. If the weather isn’t right for this dive there are some stunning drift dives along the cliffs where there is an abundance of life in the clear waters.
Dive center recommendations for Scapa Flow
Most of the diving around Scapa Flow like the dive sites named above is boat-based and these need to be booked up to two years in advance. Many only accept group bookings so it is essential to plan far ahead. All the dive boats operate out of Stromness, a small town about 30 minutes drive from the island capital of Kirkwall.
The best dive boat from Stromness is Huskyan Charters. This beautiful dive boat offers accommodation either on board or in Stromness and must be one of the best dive boat experiences in the UK.
There are a few shore based dive you can do with an experience guide. If you need air or kit, then the Scapa Scuba – Red Shed Shop is the place to go. This used to be a dive school but is now an excellent dive shop and chandler with air fills. It can’t be missed as you come into Stromness on the felly as it is the old red lifeboat station.
How to get to Scapa Flow & the Orkney Islands
The Orkney Islands can be reached from the Scottish mainland by ferry. Pentland Ferries run from Gills Bay close to John O’Groats to South Ronaldsay. This is a quicker crossing but is then a 90-minute drive to Stromness.
The NorthLink ferry from Scrabster is 90 minutes but docks in Stromness. This means that you can arrive in Orkney without a long drive across the islands.
Find accommodation in Stromness, Orkney.
The Orkney Islands aren’t just a location for diving. They have a remote and rugged landscape and the whole island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you can take time to explore the island then you will find the oldest Neolithic Village in Europe, abandoned 2000 years before the pyramids at Giza and Stonehenge were built. There is an abundance of wildlife with seals, otters, and short-eared owls being visible from the road and if you are really lucky you may get to see the northern lights.