Our patience had been rewarded. After sitting through yesterday’s storm we awoke to clear skies and a light breeze. We had sensibly packed up the night before so we just had to get some breakfast and pack our stuff into the car which we parked across from the boat and the cottage in the car park of the ferry terminal. It was a very short walk to the boat to hear the verdict on the wrecks on offer that day. Sadly our divemaster of the previous 2 days had finished for the season which was a real shame as his phenomenal knowledge of the wrecks and detailed briefings both, before and after the dives were certainly missed. We kitted up on our way out to the SMS Kronprinz – our first and only battleship of the trip.
The battleships for me were a huge draw of diving Scapa Flow. I remember back to when I was doing my initial open water course, with no conception that this was just the beginning of my wreck training and the instructor mentioning how fantastic the wreck diving was in Scotland. When I came home I immediately did some research into Scapa Flow – some of the best diving the world over and was fascinated by the idea of exploring a WW1 battleship from underneath the water. Fast forward 5 years of training later and it was a dream coming to fruition. The SMS Kronprinz was commissioned into the Navy just 4 months after the start of WW1. It was named after the then German crown prince. The battleship was armed with 12inch guns in 5 of the twin turrets but due to its sheer size and weight could only reach speeds of 24mph. She took part in many of the WW1 battles including the Battle of Jutland but emerged relatively unscathed. After Germany’s defeat in the war, along with the rest of the capital ships of the high seas fleet, it was interned in Scapa Flow. However, on 21 June 1919 General Ludwig von Reuter decided to scuttle the entire fleet to ensure the British could not make use of the German ships in future wars. Given this was one of the dives I had been most looking forward to I had very high expectations. As we descended into the ocean black I lost all sense of my bearings. Everywhere I looked, other than the light from my own torch and the Divemaster in front was pitch black. This became really uneasy when I at one point realised I was inside the wreck without knowing it – the scale of these ships are just so large. From that point I followed on close to the ship side to orientate myself. I have to say, yet again, despite having well over100 dives and being AOW with a variety of specialities I would not have felt comfortable doing these dives without an experienced guide. Seeing the guns was probably a diving highlight for me and despite the darkness making it more challenging to pick out life this wasn’t a dive to spot creatures for me. It was to see a moment of history and is something I will never forget.
After a short surface interval we were on to our second, and my favourite dive of the trip – the SMS Coln. The SMS Coln was a light cruiser and one of only 2 of this class of ship ever made. The other – the SMS Dresden lies alongside the Coln in Scapa Flow. The Coln is the most intact of the four cruisers and rests on her starboard side. The first difference between this and the Kronprinz is the size, despite it still being a warship and 115m long, a light cruiser is smaller and easier to comprehend than the mammoth battleships. She is also a lot shallower with her shallowest point being in 22m of water. However, even at 36m, her deepest point, it was a totally different dive experience to the same depth at the Kronprinz. The swimthroughs in the anchor cabs were long with loads of light giving you context and orientation for where you are in the ship. There are also a lot of defining features such as the Control Tower. The light means the opportunity to spot many of the creatures which call this area home. For me this was a really enjoyable dive spotting lots of fish and corals as well as seeing a piece of WW1 history. As we surfaced and headed back to Stromness I really appreciated what we had had the chance to see during our time here. Despite not diving all of the wrecks the dives we did do were great and with the knowledge and experience of the fantastic guides at scapa scuba I believe we saw the best of these. I couldn’t recommend this dive centre enough for those interested in checking out the area. But go soon – the wrecks will have been there for 100 years in 2019 and so are obviously disintegrating, despite the cold water conditions. They will not be around forever.
We had arrived back in plenty of time and so took the opportunity to check out the final piece of Neolithic history left on our list – the Broch of Gurness. This is an Iron Age broch village which once housed a substantial community. Settlement began between 500 and 200 BC. When we arrived, there was no historic Scotland people present and so we just wandered in and explored this ancient piece of civilisation. It was a similar to Scara Brae but without some of the details and preservation that you can see there. However, what you do get it the opportunity to wander amongst the settlement and through into the stone tower room at the centre of the broch. Obviously the settlements are much later in time from the stone age settlements found elsewhere on the island. It also became the grave of a Viking woman. I really liked how peaceful this site was and the fact you could explore unaided. Definitely a must-see.
We headed back to Stromness and had time for a coffee and cake in Julia’s Café Bistro before catching the ferry. Because we had left so late we didn’t arrive back until 11.30 which made it a really long day but it was definitely worth it to see such important parts of WW1 history unseen to so many. For any avid divers out there Scapa Flow is a must, but you probably already know that. The diving can be challenging and do feeling comfortable at depth in darkness is imperative as well as experience in a dry suit. But for non-divers this is a beautiful collection of islands full of history and intrigue and outstanding natural beauty. I am struggling to pinpoint anyone who wouldn’t fall in love with Orkney. I for one will definitely be back!