Since I first dived into the ocean back in 2011 on a discover scuba dive in Borneo I fell in love with the ocean and as I am sure some of you will have noticed diving now plays a huge part not just in my travel life but also socially. It is a sport that you can do so much with, having a tonne of specialties to allow you to gain skills to conquer ice, caverns and altitude to name a few. Back in 2012 when I initially got my open water license I had no idea the amount of time and extra courses it would take to dive in Scotland for example. I remember, somewhat naively perhaps, thinking to myself I would dive Scapa Flow, a world renowned wreck diving spot in Orkney where the German high seas fleet lie in the depths below. Fast forward 5 years of dive training and experience and it was finally happening, I was off to Orkney.
Orkney is an island just off the north coast of Scotland. You can get there by flying but it isn’t cheap and so we decided to drive up meaning we could save on flights and not be limited on space for dive kit which is not particularly light. The drive is an initial 5 hours up to Scrabster with Ivan did in good time taking in some spectacular scenery – for those not in a rush I would recommend stopping off for the night to break up the journey and allow you to enjoy the sights of the Scottish highlands. The ferry across to Stromness is an hour and 40 minutes and so we arrived pretty late into Stromness to a lovely little cottage right next to the ferry terminal and had an early night. Food on the ferry was edible but the highlight was definitely the gorgeous views of Hoy island (Orkney is made up of numerous smaller islands) and particularly the Old Man of Hoy as the sun went down.
It was an early rise the next day to drive from Stromness over to the Churchill Barriers towards the South of the main island and the place of the blockships. The blockships were initially installed to protect the flow (the large circular part of water almost completely surrounded by the islands and used by the British navy during WW1 and towards WW2) from enemy attack by blocking off each of the entries and keeping watch over them. However, as a result of a lone German, who wasn’t believed to be part of an official mission and managed to sneak past the blockships and torpedoed the Royal Oak, a revenge class battleship, sinking the ship and causing the death of 833 people of 1234 on board the blockships were deemed insufficient protection for the site. The Barriers were the answer and were an engineering feat carried out mostly by Italian POWs. We arrived to sunshine and parked just next to barrier 3. I have yet to invest in a lot of the main kit required for diving and so there was an initial briefing from ScapaScuba before assigning kit and getting us ready to dive. Scapa Scuba require all divers who wish to dive Scapa Flow to do their first day of diving at the blockships to ensure capability before taking you out onto the flow, a pretty sensible policy given the amount of diver deaths here every year.
Driving towards barrier 3 from Kirkwall there are blockships on both the left and the right side. We focussed our dives on the right side since the left side is extremely shallow (around 5m and ok for snorkelling). Even here the maximum depth is around 12m and so these are great sights for beginners and for trying out unfamiliar kit (as I was about to learn). We kitted up and swam out to the Gartshore before descending down. The 3 blockships on this side of the barrier are all single screw steel steamers. The Gartshore, is a WW1 blockship and is quite broken up but there are some sections such as the propeller, rudder and prop shaft which can be easily seen. There was also a lot of life which was really nice to see. The dive was relatively easy but the kit very different from that to which I was used to. The suit was much too big and I didn’t have enough weight so was floaty, however, when I got extra added into my BCD it tipped the weight balance sending my floaty feet skyrocketing up to the surface and with me too heavy to flip myself. I persevered to see a little of the Martis but it was really uncomfortable and pretty disconcerting feeling so out of control so I called the dive.
It was a shame as what we had seen had been really enjoyable but with swim throughs a plenty I wanted to get my weight and buoyancy sorted for the second dive to make the most of the diving. After adding some ankle weights to counteract the incredibly light fins I had to wear with the much to big suit I was sorted. For the second dive we concentrated on the Martis again; a ship built back in 1894 and scuttled in 1940 which was full of swim throughs with loads of life everywhere. We then swam over to the Empire Seaman, a favourite of all the divemasters, with yet again a lot of swim throughs and life. This ship is younger than the others only built in 1922 and so is the most intact of these three and as a result the best to help visualise the sunken ship despite being extensively salvaged. The second dive was much more successful and is a lesson that regardless of how many dives or experience you have, you should take it easy when using new kit. It is a testament to the safety and thoroughness of ScapaScuba that they ensure divers are comfortable at the blockships before taking them out into the flow.
We finished around lunchtime and had brought a packed lunch so enjoyed that before packing the diving kit up. We then went for a gorgeous walk in the sun along the beach right along the left side of barrier three and along to barrier 2. At low tide you can spot many of the blockships poking up above the water which makes this a great trip for non-divers as well. After our walk we headed back to the first barrier and stopped off at the Italian Chapel. It was a beautiful old chapel with a deceiving frontage (the 3 main walls are made out of a tin shed with only the front having a brick outer wall. It was built by the Italian POWs to worship while being held and being forced to build the barriers. The inside is filled with intricate frescoes and is really beautiful. We had a wander round before heading back to Stromness to chill out before dinner. Since Stromness is so small you can easily wander around and we had scoped out the main spots on the first morning. We decided to try out The Scapa Flow Restaurant which was situated upstairs in the Stromness Hotel. The food was good, being very seafood focussed which was very much to my liking. It was a chilled evening with seafood and wine before an early night in preparation for the flow the next day.