Text & Photos
(additional photos: John Kerr & Niall Brittain)
In the early autumn of 2017 it occurred to Clydebank Sub Aqua Club member Niall Brittain, that a major commemoration was on the horizon. Namely, on 21st June 2019 it would be 100 years since the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet in Scapa Flow, Orkney. Well, perhaps we should do something about it and try to arrange a diving holiday as close to this commemorative date as possible! And so, it came to pass, that Niall was anointed as the organiser of a diving trip for the club. Well, it was his idea after all!!!!
In a remarkably short time Niall had a programme drawn together. The date was set for 18th May 2019 for 1 week, diving out of Stromness on the charter boat MV Karin, which was also a “liveaboard” vessel. We would enjoy 7 days diving on the wrecks of the German High Seas Fleet with incredible underwater visibility, warm waters, calm seas, blue skies and fluffy white clouds ……………. Guaranteed! Spaces filled quickly with 9 experienced members from Clydebank SAC. A few others were disappointed that they had other commitments around that time, so invitations were thrown open to the wider diving community and the remaining spaces were quickly snapped up.
And so life carried on, the weeks and months rolled by, but finally, at last, departure day arrived on 17th May 2019, for the 12 strong party consisting of trip organiser Niall Brittain, Gordon Anderson, John Kerr, Martin Keeley, Joe McInally, David Richford, Brian Tierney, David Ryrie, Keith Waugh, Isobel & Tony Carter from Clyde Valley Divers and Alan Dorricott, to head up to Scrabster and the ferry for Orkney. We made our way north in small groups, most arranging to leave their vehicles on the mainland and move their gear by Northlink ferry trolley, but 4 party members enjoyed the comfort of taking a fully laden 4x4 across on the ferry. (2 of those divers had rebreathers!!!! Huh!! Say no more!)
As promised, we arrived in glorious sunshine and almost flat calm seas, so conditions looked really promising!? Across the pier MV Karin lay quietly in the morning sunshine and it wasn’t long before we had everything stowed on board and MV Karin was heading out under the control of skipper John Thornton and crewman/cook/man-of-all-trades Barry McGettigan. Karin is a 24metre charter vessel with 7 twin berth cabins, a day room, a galley, 2 loos, 2 showers, nitrox availability and a very efficient diver lift on the starboard side amidships. http://www.scapaflow.com/mv-karin
The plan for our first dive, in glorious afternoon weather, was to dive the cruiser SMS Karlsruhe, lying in 25metres depth on her starboard side. However, it is only around 15metres to the uppermost parts of the port hull, subject to the tide. The ship is well broken up but still recognisable. My buddy Martin and I were able to comfortably swim the length of the wreck enjoying the diversity of life which had colonised the vessel. Colourful Plumose anemones, Elegant anemones, soft corals, Devonshire Cupcorals, starfish, Brittlestarfish, various seaweeds were covering every surface of this artificial reef. An easily identifiable gun barrel was covered in life. There were shoals of fish, Saithe I think or perhaps Coley, plus Ballan and Cuckoo Wrasse and Pollock, some quite large and not too intimidated by the presence of divers.
A very well received and enjoyable additional interest to the diving was that for this centennial year, German High Seas Fleet battle ensign flags have been placed somewhere on all 7 remaining ships. So now it would become a race to see who could find the flags and take photographs as proof! Naming no names, but who, Niall, was last to find a flag on a wreck!???
After this initial “shake down” dive we were treated to a cooked snack, which was actually a meal in itself, by cook, or should I really say chef, Barry. Was this an indication of what was to come? Indeed it was, as after the first dive of the day he would offer us sandwiches and soup and after the 2nd dive we would tuck in to a hot meal, for example pizza or Bolognese, but every day was different and very tasty. Barry had at least 2 marriage proposals!! Who needed another evening meal?? Well, in actual fact, most of the party, on most of the days, felt that they needed something extra in the middle evening, but only to help soak up the copious amounts of gin, malt whisky and beer being quality checked! More about that …… later!
Day 2, Sunday, dawned reasonably ok and by 0845 we were leaving the harbour at Stromness for the passage out to the wreck sites. All of the 7 ships remaining from the original 74 ships in the German fleet are situated, more or less, off the north-east shore of Cava Island, in the west of Scapa Flow, so it only takes around 45 minutes to reach the sites. Today it would be the cruiser SMS Dresden in the morning followed by Escort vessel F2 in the afternoon.
In all, most of the party enjoyed 13 dives during the 7 days. Wrecks dived were: Karlsruhe, a light cruiser; Dresden, a light cruiser; F2 Escort ship & YC21 barge; Brummer, a light cruiser; Karlsruhe again, Cöln, a light cruiser, a debris field west of Cava, Kronprinz Wilhelm, a battleship; Gobernador Bories, a block ship; Kronprinz Wilhelm again, F2 Escort ship & YC21 barge again; Cöln again, and finally the V83, a torpedo boat destroyer.
As the week progressed the weather conditions worsened to a typical Scottish summer with overcast, windy, drizzly conditions. In the course of the week the wind seemed to blow from all around the compass, from the north, the west or the south-west, probably around force 3 or 4, so nothing outrageous but enough to make you realise that the sea is not to be messed with, even in the relative shelter of Scapa Flow!!
I will not describe every dive, as there are plenty of excellent websites to visit or books to read for comprehensive details of all the diving in Scapa Flow, and besides, all the party members will have their own thoughts and memories of the dives. However, other highlights for me were a few more battle flags, seeing guns, davits, winches, chains, machinery and other parts of broken superstructure which were safe enough to swim through to provide interesting video sequences, a very large skate, around a 1.3metres/4feet across its wings in the debris field, which Niall nearly landed on at the bottom of the shot line and, on the Kronprinz Wilhelm, we saw the massive twin rudders at 32metres depth. The fish life, whilst not prolific, was very much in evidence. Perhaps later in the year the fish life will be more prevalent.
I said I’d say more about the activities in the MV Karin “day” room! Suffice to say that the gin flowed, the malt whisky flowed, the beer flowed and the banter overflowed!!! Any more than that and this article would have to be severely censored. With 11 male divers, several of whom became quite “emotional” with spirits, some of the “banter” became quite “expressive”. Isobel kept her head down under her duvet and her ears closed. No subject escaped expression and discussion, even politics came in to it. Who’d have thought it?? Having said that, we all had a great time and a very good laugh.
Clydebank members have an undeniable reputation for their sophistication, charm and culture and since we were invariably back in Stromness by around 3pm each day, we took the opportunity to explore the historical and cultural aspects of the Orkney Islands. Sites visited included St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, the UK’s most northerly Cathedral and founded in 1137 by the Viking, Earl Rognvald; the Neolithic village of Skara Brae built and occupied between 3000BCE and 2500BCE and the beautiful Italian Chapel on Langholm, consisting of two Nissen huts transformed into a chapel by Domenico Chiocchetti and his colleagues, who were prisoners of the 2nd world war.
We also saw some of the Churchill Barriers built in the 1940’s primarily as Naval defences to protect the Scapa Flow anchorage. The really cultured amongst us went to see the “Ring of Brodgar” and “The Standing Stones of Stennes”. The hardy members of the group took a walk up to a windy, misty, drizzly Marwick Head and the Kitchener Memorial. And finally, in the interests of culture, we found the hamlet of Twat. Enough said ………. apart from thanking Alan Dorricott and David Ryrie for providing the transport to enable us to see these other aspects of the history of Orkney.
Thursday night being our last night on the boat, we booked a table in the Royal Hotel in Stromness for a final meal and a last attempt to get ourselves banned. However, we all seemed to behave ourselves reasonably well.
Diving on the last day was on the SMS Cöln again with a final dive on the V83. This ship lies in very shallow water and is very much broken up though the stern area is reasonably intact with quite a few fish around. Some divers were lucky enough to find an octopus as a highlight of their dive.
We arrived back at Stromness at around 1430, so with a ferry departure of 1645 we had a reasonable amount of time to pack up our sodden diving gear, personal bags and camera equipment and head for the ferry. The weather had finally cleared up again to see us off, but that was just a kid on. By the time the ferry left, the seas had roughened up, the wind was blowing, the sky darkened and the rain was falling once again. The Old Man of Hoy almost disappeared in to the mist as we rocked and rolled by. Never mind. It’s Scotland after all!!! We had enjoyed a great week of diving, so a BIG thanks to Niall for organising the whole trip and to everyone for making the trip a HUGE success.
Finally, it is perhaps worth noting that whilst we had enjoyed our diving and the fun of a holiday, the German High Seas Fleet is a monument to the folly of Man. The First World War was a dreadful war which killed millions of people and shattered the lives of families who lost husbands, fathers, sons, wives, mothers and daughters. It wasn’t supposed to happen again! It was supposed to be “the war to end all wars”. When we recall our diving exploits and our enjoyment at diving the ghosts in Scapa Flow, we should also take a long pause to reflect on what it was all for and its devastating consequences.
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