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, seven ships of the German fleet - three battleships and four cruisers - remain in Scapa Flow, making it one of Europe's most important and popular shipwreck diving sites. As an interesting aside, some of the steel which continues to be salvaged from the scuttled fleet from time to time, is used in the manufacture of geiger counters, since it was sunk before there was any chance of radioactive contamination.
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.
Diving 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. The company's vessel, the 63ft ship, the Crusader, can accommodate up to 12 divers for vacations and holidays. Up to eight divers can live aboard the Crusader, which now has a sauna. Larger groups can book dive only holidays. Fishing parties of up to 8 live aboard or 12 anglers can book week long angling vacations. The Crusader regularly participates in the National Angling championships where its fishermen have landed awards for Best Catch, Biggest Fish Caught and Most Species Caught. The ship is equipped with the latest fish finding equipment, Rods and reels can be hired with the charter.
- Scapa Scuba is an accredited PADI 5* dive centre and dive shop. They offer guided dives, equipment hire, dry suit repair and Nitrox courses and can work with experienced divers or beginners. Their bright red center is a restored former Lifeboat Station and is a local landmark in the town of Stromness. They offer a variety of open water, advanced open water and lifesaving courses. A popular alternative, their Try a Dive half day course, is open to anyone 10 years or older who is reasonably fit and can swim.
- The M.V. Invicible at 25 meters, is the largest vessel in Orkney's diving fleet. it can accommodate up to 12 live aboard divers, offering a fully equipped, stable diving platform that includes a diver's lift and can cater for all technical requirements.