Scapa… Flow… If you are a passionate wreck diver, you know how much of a legend this scuba diving destination is. If this the first time you hear about this place, let me tell you its story, and you’ll understand why.
A close story with History
November 1918. World War I is over. On the 11th of November, UK, France and Germany sign the Treaty of Versailles, sealing a temporary armistice. At the same time, far away from Paris, at the very north tip of Scotland, the Kaserliche Marine’s High Seas Fleet is parked in Scapa Flow waiting for the results of the negotiation. The archipelago of Orkney forms a large natural harbour and is a highly strategic geographic location. Scapa Flow is the name of the sea area in the middle of the islands of Hoy, Fara, Flotta, South Ronaldsay, Burray and Orkney mainland.
On the 21st of June 1919, after waiting for 9 months to receive information about the conclusions of the treaty, the German Admiral Ludwig Van Reuters orders to scuttle the 74 German ships, fearing they could fall into British hands. 52 sank, most of them were salvaged in the following years.
During WWII, once again Orkney was used as a strategic navy base. German U-boats (submarines) attacked again. The sadly famous Royal Oak sank with 800 lives on board (It is a sanctuary, so it is not allowed to dive there). The Churchill Barriers, on the east side of Orkney, were then built with concrete blocks to avoid this to happen again. The “block ships”, boats sunk to create a defense against submarines, initially in place, were obviously not efficient.
All these tumultuous events formed decades later the wreck diving mecca in Europe. Today, only 7 shipwrecks from the original German fleet of 1919 can be explored by divers. It is just crazy to think that you can dive in Scotland wrecks that are going soon to be 100 years old.
How to go to Orkney? The itinerary of my 4-day road trip
I guess you can now easily understand that when you live 6 hours driving away from such an incredible scuba diving spot, it does not take long before planning this adventure. In my case, I decided to plan a road trip with my friends from Edinburgh and Glasgow, to explore at the same time the northern Highlands. If you are far away, and you lack time, you can fly from Edinburgh Airport with a FlyBE domestic flight to Kirkwall, in Orkney. From a cost point of view, it was worth the effort. We calculated that the 3 of us saved 50% compared to the price of a flight by sharing the cost of the fuel and the ferry. Considering the amazing things we saw, I have no regret at all.
We had four days. It is not much for such an expedition. With some early starts in the morning, we managed to drive all the way and back, visit for 1 full day Orkney landmarks and dive for 2 days.
1 – Edinburgh – Inverness: that the secret that made us save much time without being too tired. We left the night before on a Thursday and after 3 hours of driving, we stopped for the night in Inverness, the capital of the Highlands. We took the opportunity to enjoy the lights of the bridges over the Ness River and to spend some time at the Hootenanny Pub for some excellent Scottish Folk music with a “dram of scotch” (a glass of whisky).
2- Inverness-Gills Bay-Kirkwall- Skara Brae -Stromness: We left at 6 am on a Friday morning to catch the first ferry to Orkney in Gills Bay. You need to be at the terminal at least 15 minutes before the ferry leaves. The crossover is only 1 hour, enough time to enjoy a coffee with a bacon & egg breakfast roll in the lounge of the ship. At 10 am, we were finally in Orkney, starting a long day of visits on the Mainland.
We began with the tiny Italian Chapel, amazingly decorated inside with trompe-l’oeil paintings. It was built by the Italian prisoners of WWII who were mainly building the Churchill Barriers. The prisoners built it to have something to remind them home. The next stop was Kirkwall, the main town of Orkney. The highlight is its 12 century St Magnus Cathedral with its dazzling orange colour and its enigmatic carvings inside. In the suburbs, we visited Highland Park Distillery and found out why it is one of the best whisky in the world. It seems that the very mild climate of Orkney (5°C minimum in the winter and 14°C maximum in the summer) and the sweet peat that does not contain any wood (there is no tree on Orkney) would be the main reasons of its remarkably balanced flavours.
We finished our tour by Skara Brae Neolithic Village. The nickname of Orkney is the Egypt of the North: Skara Brae is an ancient prehistorical village of small houses that were built underground near a lovely sandy beach. It would be the oldest archaeological site in the world, older than the Pyramids of Egypt. The period is approximately from 5000 AC. The perfect organisation of the village, the smart way of using the space and the natural resources to insulate the house and prepare the food was incredible. If you go to Orkney, you just can’t miss this site.
3 – Burray & Ring of Brogar: We went shore diving at the Churchill Barriers for the day and had the luck to be back early enough in Stromness to go and see the Ring of Brogar: a perfect ring of standing stones in the middle of the fields of wildflowers and heather, looking at the sea. If you have a beautiful weather, come at sunset time to get a perfect shot.
4 – Scapa Flow & Hoy: We spent the day on the boat, diving in Scapa Flow with a surprise stop on Hoy at lunch time.
5 – Stromness – Gills Bay – John’O Groat – Keiss – Wick – Edinburgh: We left at 7 am Stromness to take once again the first ferry in the morning to make all our way south to Edinburgh, while making sightseeing stops on the Caithness coast. Our first stop, John’O Groat is the North tip of Britain Mainland, but except the famous sign with directions and tourist shops, there’s almost nothing to see. There id no need to spend more than 15 minutes. The Old Keiss Castle and Sinclair Castle were fantastic spots where we spent at least an hour at each. Not easy to find. For the first one, you’ll have to ask the farmer to cross the sheep fields to get access to the pebbles beach for the stunning view. We had the incredible luck there to have a seal colony just hanging out there just for us! We were back in Edinburgh at 6.30pm.
Diving the Churchill Barriers: the perfect shallow introduction to wreck diving in Orkney
On the recommendation of Scapa Scuba, we started our underwater adventure in Orkney by some shallow shore diving to let my friend do her dry suit specialty course while I would have fun taking photos and videos on the wrecks. We dived the barrier #3 (There are 4 in total). The maximum depth is 15m, and most of the block ships can be seen at the surface. Underwater, many mechanical parts and cannons are still recognisable and make great subjects to photograph. The advantage of the shallow depth at the Churchill Barriers is to use the daylight for some very scenic shots. The key at the Churchill barriers is to explore below the wrecks, between the structure and the sand, all the marine life is hiding there. I was surprised to see vast areas covered in pink sea-squirt. I discovered for the first time in Scotland tiny spider crabs hanging there upside down with cute little eyes. Because of the shallow depth it is easy to do some 50-60-minute dives. It was not our case, but it seems Churchill Barriers are also a great place to see seals in Orkney. If you go there, and you see them, please let me know!
Diving Scapa Flow: a day at sea to reach the Holy Grail of wreck diving in Europe
All the scuba diving boats going to Scapa Flow leave from Stromness. This charming little town with narrow cobblestone streets along the harbour is a paradise for scuba divers. There are dive shops in town, gas tanks filled with air/nitrox/trimix all over and boats full of technical scuba diving gear all around. Our boat left at 9.30am, which was for once a not too early start that was highly appreciated. Since our little cottage booked in the centre of Stromness was only 5 minutes walking away from the harbour, that was even better. We spent the day at sea with a surprise stop a lunch time on Hoy for our greatest pleasure.
Was it the historical importance of these shipwrecks? Was it their size? Or, all the equipment still visible and in rather good conditions that you can see inside? I am not sure. The thing I know is that I immediately understood that all the wreck diving experiences I had before were nothing compared to this. I also quickly realised how frustrating it was for me, trying to shoot pictures and videos. My camera would need a serious upgrade with a wide-angle lens or more powerful lights maybe to be able to capture the magic of these wrecks. So I decide to focus on interesting details whether it was interesting remaining parts of the ship or marine life around it. On the most recent wreck, I was shocked to see a screw thread almost intact. Is the cold water the reason of this excellent conservation? I do not know but for mid-September for a dry suit dive the water temperature was at a comfortable level of 12°C. From a marine life point of view, the sides of wrecks are covered in orange and yellow soft corals. The wrasses come to play, and the edible crabs were very shy and hid in holes.
I hope my video “Orkney, Underwater & Beyond” can help understand how incredible this place is and why you need to put it on your scuba bucket list.
Will I dive Scapa Flow again?
Certainly! I am already checking if I can do it again next spring. I would like to dive the most famous wrecks like The Bummer. These dive sites are deeper so a certification for deep diving at -40m is necessary. I would also recommend being nitrox certified to extend your bottom time.
A surprise visit to Scapa Flow museum in Lyness, Hoy
We were not expecting this at all! At lunch time, our boat stopped on Hoy where the main military base of Orkney was. During WWII, 60,000 people were living on Hoy. Today there are only 500 people living on the island. There is an entire ghost town to explore. We had only the time to visit the museum in the old pump house, but we were already impressed with what we saw. So many objects, photos, uniforms, press articles, mechanical parts and weapons from the wrecks, propaganda posters, etc. We could have spent hours and hours there. If you have the opportunity to go to Hoy, don’t miss the chance of visiting Lyness Museum. Good news: it is free!
f you want to live the same adventure, I warmly recommend you to contact Scupa Scapa. Their instructors and divemasters are so kind and helpful. I was impressed by their knowledge of the history of the Churchill Barriers and Orkney. Everything was perfectly organised, including the rental equipment for my friend. They also have the most beautiful dive shop I’ve ever seen.
www.scapascuba.co.uk – Lifeboat House, Stromness, Orkney, UK
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