We had the opportunity to return to Scapa Flow this fall, during the centenary year of the scuttling of the German Fleet. As always it was with great excitement that we arrived in Stromness, added to that we were diving on a boat filled with our dive friends from around the world. With the reunion and high experience level of the boat, it was certain to be a fun week!
The itinerary for the week included the usual celebrities, the König, Karlsruhe, Kronprinz Wilhelm, Brummer, Cöln and F2 as well as some rather special dives including the Markgraf. Following the centenary commemorations many of the German High Seas Fleet vessels have had flags placed on the wrecks, which gave an interesting new feature to search out in additon to the metal structures and marine life.
The massive German battleships and cruisers are rightfully the stars of the Flow and for our technical divers the collosal bow of the Markgraf was the experience of the week… but we found that there are some interesting additional options if you have the time and crew to take you to different dive sites. We were fortunate enough to dive three wrecks that we hadn’t before: the sunken U-Boat UB-116, the Bayern turrets, and the blockship Tabarka.
The UB-116 was the last U-Boat to be sunk in WWI. On October of 1918, with the aim of penetrating Scapa Flow and detroying as many vessels as possible, UB-116 unknowingly entered the minefield protecting Hoxa Sound and was destroyed. She was raised in 1919, but foundered at the mouth of Pan Hope. A controlled explosion was conducted to deal with the live torpedoes, and as such the submarine is very broken up with the conning tower as one of the few remaining identifiable features.
The wreck of UB-116 is pretty small, and relatively shallow for Scapa Flow, so it is usually done as a second dive of the day. We enjoyed our short drop into the site as it was something different to see. The detached conning tower lying about 10 meters from the rest of the hull was still intact and a delight to swim around. The rest of the hull was mostly tangled metal wreckage but we managed to see a nice dogfish swimming around the wreckage. Plus now we can say we have dived a submarine!
The battleship SMS Bayern was interned in Scapa Flow with the German High Seas Fleet and scuttled on 21st June 1919. During salvaging in 1934, the extraordinarily heavy armored turrets of the Bayern slipped out of their hull and remain upside down on the ocean floor to this day. They now sit at a max depth of 45m.
Our dive on the Bayern turrets dive site offered a look at something special: the insides of the 15-inch guns of the battleship Bayern. At 38m, our bottom time was limited, but we were still able to circle and get good looks at two of the mighty turrets. The highlight was seeing the tracks of 10-inch steel ball bearings on which the turrets used to rotate. This was quite a unique dive and had us wishing for more dive time.
The Tabarka was originally sunk as blockship in Kirk Sound in 1941, but was raised and re-sunk as a blockship in Burra Sound in 1944. She is now one of the 3 remaining blockships in the flowing current of the Burra Sound, resting upside down at 15m, she is only divable at slack tide.
The wreck of the block ship Tabarka was a surprise favorite of ours as the best dive of our week in Scapa. In this area of extreme tides, not only do you need an experienced skipper to drop you in at the right place, but you need to do a negative entry to get down to the wreck as quickly as possible. One upside of the current here is that it means there are less suspended particles in the water and better visibility than at other spots in the Flow and also the tidal currents nourish the marine life that clings to the wreck.
Our dive group managed to get straight down to the bottom (it wasn’t deep, maybe 12m or so), and then fin right up to the side of the Tabarka. The wreck was roughly split in two halves, and each side offered not only respite from the current, but an ethereal, almost zen-like atmosphere with sunlight streaming in through windows and cutouts in the hull, along with strands of kelp wafting in the current. The floor and inside of the wreck was festooned with life and we had ample time to slowly explore each half of the wreck, enjoying the experience for around 45 minutes. The return to our boat was a dramatic conclusion to the dive, with a carefully coordinated fast drift in the current as we ascended slowly. Those with a keen eye spotted the remains of other blockship wrecks below us as we drifted. Back on board it was clear from all the grinning faces that we were not the only ones totally enthralled by this wreck.
One final note … underwater photography in Scapa Flow is hard! To my chagrin it took me 7 dives to figure out that a standard fisheye lens with two strobe setup doesn’t really cut it there, given the average visibility was about 4 meters. The solution: as many thousands of lumens of off-camera lighting as you can manage. A team of lighting assistants would also be rather helpful! Volunteers anyone? The best I could manage on this trip were a few grainy black and white conversions, but at least I’ll know better before our next visit!
Follow more of CJ and Mike’s diving adventures at www.bimbleintheblue.com.