Scapa Flow, the body of deep water surrounded by Scotland's Orkney Islands, has been a sheltered anchorage for war ships since at least Viking times. It has also witnessed some of the greatest and most tragic naval events of two World Wars. Today the Scotland dive site is a magnet for experienced divers and naval history buffs drawn to its battleship graveyard and its famous WWI shipwrecks.
The sinking of the German Fleet
After the Armistice of World War I, 74 ships of the German High Seas Fleet were ordered into Scapa Flow to be held while negotiations on the surrender continued.
They remained for 10 months, becoming a tourist attraction.
As the signing of the formal surrender approached,Admiral von Reuter, the German commander, prepared to destroy his navy rather than see it fall under British control. On June 21, 1919, with most of the British fleet away on exercises, he gave the order to sink the ships. All 74 went down in minutes. It was the greatest scuttling of naval vessels in history.
Although most of the ships were removed in the 1920s, eight ships of the German fleet remain in Scapa Flow, making it one of Europe's most important and popular shipwreck diving sites.
Most of the German sailors were already ashore when the German Fleet sank. Skeleton crews were on board and all were rescued. A buoy in another area of the Flow marks a much greater human tragedy.
The sinking of HMS Royal Oak
At the start of World War II, a large part of the British Royal Navy was stationed at its main anchorage, Scapa Flow.
On the night of October 13, 1939, a German U-Boat entered the Flow through its eastern entrance. It torpedoed HMS Royal Oak, a battleship that was being used as temporary housing for seamen stationed on Orkney. Of the 1,400 on board, 833 died when the ship capsized and sank. Today, the Royal Oak site is a protected war grave, marked by a buoy and by a slick of oil that continues to rise from it.
The eastern channel into Scapa Flow was sealed with the building of the Churchill Barriers which now support a road link between the Orkney mainland and the smaller islands of Burray and South Ronaldsay.
To dive or not to dive the German wrecks
Several Orkney dive centers operate guided dives to see the wrecked German fleet and the flora and fauna of Scapa Flow:
- Scapa Flow Diving Centre runs a charter boat for fishing, diving and sightseeing the Flow.
- Scapa Scuba is a PADI dive centre and dive shop. They offer guided dives, equipment hire, dry suit repair and Nitrox courses.
- The Stromness Diving Centre Have a fully equipped dive boat for Scapa Flow charters and carry Nitrox for those qualified to pump it.
Even if you don't dive, you can still explore Scapa Flow underwater with the help of a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Roving Eye Boat Trips give three hour tours of Scapa Flow, culminating in the lowering of their ROV to explore one of the German wrecks. The full tour includes opportunities to get close to Orkney's large grey seal colony as well as fulmars, blackbacks, gannets, guillemots and arctic terns.