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 history, and you’ll understand why you need to put diving Scapa Flow on the top of your scuba diving bucket list in Europe. Chances are you didn’t even know you could go diving in Scotland.
Located at the northern tip of Scotland, the archipelago of Orkney forms a large natural harbour and is a highly strategic 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.
The history of Scapa Flow, from WWI to WWII
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.
On the 21st of June 1919, after waiting for 9 months to receive information about the conclusions of the treaty, 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 defence against submarines, initially in place, were obviously not efficient enough.
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 near century-old shipwrecks in Scotland.
Scuba diving in Orkney : Scapa Flow & the Churchill Barriers
Scapa Flow is one of the most famous wreck diving sites in the world. It was on my scuba diving bucket list for a long time but when I moved to Scotland I quickly started planning my adventure there.
The shipwrecks from WWI and WWII at the Churchill Barriers and Scapa Flow are so enormous that it was a challenge for me to shoot pictures and videos with my compact camera. I will need to go back with a significant gear upgrade such as powerful torch lights and wide-angle lens to capture stunning images of these historical wrecks.
The Churchill Barriers: shore 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 drysuit speciality course while I would have fun taking photos and videos on the wrecks.
We dived barrier #3 (There are 4 in total). The maximum depth is 15m, and most of the blockships 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 search for what lies 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 depths, it is easy to do 60-minute dives. It was not our case, but it seems Churchill Barriers are also a great place to meet seals underwater in Orkney.
Diving Scapa Flow : the Holy Grail of wreck diving
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 several dive shops in town, gas tanks filled with air/nitrox/trimix all over the piers and boats full of technical scuba diving gear all around.
The Scapa Scuba boat left at 9.30 am, which was for once a not too early start and was highly appreciated. Since our little cottage in the centre of Stromness was only 5 minutes walking away from the harbour, it was even better. We spent the day at sea with a surprise stop a lunchtime on Hoy Island.
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 Scapa Flow.
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 decided to focus on interesting details whether it was interesting remaining parts of the ship or marine life around it.
On the most recent wreck, from WWII, I was shocked to see a screw thread almost intact. Is the cold water the reason for this excellent conservation? I don’t know but for mid-September, the water temperature was at a comfortable level of 12°C (based on Scottish standards!).
From a marine life point of view, the sides of wrecks are covered in orange and yellow soft corals. The wrasses came to play while the crabs were shy and hid in holes. Marine life highlights are the sun starfish and the plumose anemone.
Will I dive Scapa Flow again? I hope so! I would love to dive the most famous shipwrecks like The Bummer. These dive sites are deeper so a deep-diving certification is necessary to reach a depth of 40 m. I would also recommend being nitrox certified to extend your bottom time.
Who to go diving with in Scapa Flow?
f you want to live the same adventure, I warmly recommend you to contact Scapa Scuba. 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.
How to visit Orkney from Edinburgh in 5 days?
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 the Northern Highlands.
If you live further away, and you lack time, you can fly from Edinburgh Airport with a 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.
Day 1 – from Edinburgh to Inverness
It is the secret that made us save a lot of time and not feel 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 lively Scottish Folk music with a “wee dram of scotch” (a small glass of whisky).
Day 2 – from Inverness to Stromness
We left Inverness at 6 am on a Friday morning to catch the first ferry to Orkney from 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 working on the Churchill Barriers. The prisoners built it from two Nissen huts to have something to remind them of their country.
The next stop was Kirkwall, the main town of Orkney. The highlight is its 12th-century St Magnus Cathedral with its dazzling orange colour and its enigmatic carvings inside.
In the suburbs, we visited the 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 oldest archaeological site in the world. It gave Orkney its nickname: the Egypt of the North. If you go to Orkney, you just can’t miss this site which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Skara Brae is a pre-historical village of small houses that were built underground 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.
Day 3 – Churchill Barriers & Ring of Brodgar
First, we went shore diving at the Churchill Barriers in the morning. We had the luck to be back early enough in Stromness to visit the Ring of Brodgar, only 10 minutes driving north.
The perfect ring of standing stones is looking at the sea in the middle of a heather field. If you have beautiful weather, come at sunset time to get the perfect shot.
Day 4 – Scapa Flow & Hoy Island
We spent the day on the boat, wreck diving in Scapa Flow between Orkney mainland and Hoy. It was completely unexpected but at lunchtime, our boat stopped on Hoy Island 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 so there is an entire ghost town to explore if you are into urbex.
We only had 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. I could have spent hours and hours there. If you have the opportunity to go to Hoy, don’t miss the chance of visiting the Lyness Museum especially since the entrance is free!
Day 5 – from Stromness to Edinburgh
We left Stromness at 7 am to take once again the first ferry in the morning to make our way south to Edinburgh in the same day while making a few sightseeing stops on the Caithness coast.
Our first stop was John’O Groat, the northernmost tip of Britain mainland, Except for the famous sign with worldwide directions and tourist shops, there isn’t much to see. A 15-minute stop will be enough.
An hour driving south, the Old Keiss Castle and Sinclair Castle were, however, fantastic spots. We spent at least an hour at each. The first one is not easy to find, you’ll have to ask the farmer to cross the sheep fields to get access to the pebbles beach for the stunning view above. We had incredible luck there to see a seal colony just hanging out next to us!
After a long drive through the Cairngorms National Park, we were back in Edinburgh at 6.30 pm. Being the main driver, I slept well that night.
Where to stay on Orkney?
If you are a scuba diver, you definitely need to stay in Stromness near the main pier. Kirkwall the main town of the Orkney Achiepalgo can be an alternative on the days you want to go shore diving at the Churchill Barriers but my preference goes to Stomness which had a great atmosphere and felt like a scuba divers’ village. Indeed, this is where all the scuba diving boats leave to go to Scapa Flow.
If you want to stay in style, you can stay at the Stromness Hotel. I went one night for a concert as there was a Blues music festival in town, and it was stylish and old-fashioned but in a good way.
In my case, in Scotland, I usually prefer self-catering apartments or cottages where I can cook breakfast and dinner. A bit further the narrow streets of the village of Stromness, you can find like us a little house by the sea to rest between your diving adventures in Scapa Flow.
Do you want to learn more about scuba diving and travelling to Scotland? Have a look at the following articles:
- Scuba diving in Scotland: challenge accepted!
- Shark diving in Scotland? Meet the basking sharks of the Sound of Mull
- Edinburgh diving: let’s explore the Firth of Forth
- A lucky last dive in St Abbs, Scotland
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