A two week stint in Scapa Flow is any British diver’s dream. Frequently suggested as the best diving the UK has to offer it should certainly be on your to-do list if you haven’t already been, and almost certainly on your ‘must return’ list if you’ve experienced it already.
Once you’ve recovered from the drive – from Oxford it takes about 11 hours + the ferry crossing to reach Stromness in Orkney, far north of Scotland. It really does make sense to fly, but only if you can get someone else to take your kit – excess dive baggage is apparently frequently discarded when planes are overweighted. The drive beyond Glasgow is quite scenic though, as is the ferry from Scrabster to Stromness, so that helps. It is certainly even better on the way south.
We are based in Stromness and once you get there, you will find the accommodation, dive boat within 100 yards of the ferry port. Its not that big a place. That might affect whether you want to put your car on the ferry etc… However we will need a couple of vehicles for sightseeing as Orkney is spectacular assuming I can drag any of you out of the pub!!
It had all the makings of a nightmare dive trip – 12 hour minibus journeys, unpredictable October weather in the far North of the UK, the green chilly depths of Scapa flow and living aboard a trawler for a week. If it was a movie something like the theme from Jaws would now be playing in the background about now…
Saturday 3rd October
We set out early (4am is pretty early by anyone’s standards) with a round of minibus pickups about Oxford to collect the six brave souls who dared to risk all in this diving mega trip (well it was eventually seven brave souls but Iain Lingard was picked up from a layby in Manchester….). Graham Bowsher drove the bus as the rest of yawned bleary eyed at a cold night. Jude was somewhat delayed by a slight dog crisis… but we managed to get going in good time).
Driving was interesting – the speedo on the van didn’t work so it was a bit of a guess everytime we met speed cameras – and the vital need to meet a ferry at the other end of the country did mean a certain amount of lead footed driving was going on.
Regular changes of drivers, terrible tailbacks and roadworks in the black hole of the Birmingham motorway system, lots of very strong coffee and an equally large number of toilet breaks later we made it to Scotland – but were still only half way there – its a long way to Scapa flow. If you don’t know, basically it’s that little bunch of islands off the top right of Scotland that doesn’t really get a page to itself in your road atlas because nobody would really seriously think of driving there……
Scotland is certainly more interesting to drive through than England – lots of nice mountains stick up over the motorway sound barriers but we didn’t have time to stop and look at the view – that darn ferry was beginning to cause a certain amount of panic. As we made it past Aberdeen the roads turned narrow and slow and the scenery got a lot more interesting. Horizontal rain and force 8 gales made for lots of rainbows and a rather white knuckle driving experience for poor Jude who ended up with this stretch. We finally made it to Scrabster and stopped in at the local petrol station for a fill to hear from the operator that the ferry was probably cancelled due to appallingly bad weather in the Pentland Firth !
The ferry terminal was pretty empty and the weather most inclement so we hid in the warm minibus waiting for the ferry which eventually turned up a couple of hours late. Once we were all on the ferry for some obscure reason three of us attempted to have dinner. I should have realised this was a bad idea when, whilst choosing my beef stew at the counter the ship rolled so much that I had to hold onto the counter to avoid losing my tray. If you’ve ever watched people walking about whilst drunk, then imagine they are all trying to carry trays of food, in a confined space with furniture scattered about you’ve now got a good idea of what getting to our table was like. Force 8+ in the Pentalnd firth made the ferry rise and fall (at the bow) by at least 6m but as it was pitch black outside you couldn’t tell – apart from the potatoes on the plate trying to escape and inadvertently standing up whilst trying to eat when the deck, seat, table and most of dinner suddenly dropped below you. After a few mouthfuls we gave up and headed to join the others in the bar who were gamely trying to avoid baptising themselves with their pints! Phil and I ended up spending most of the trip on the rear deck watching te black waves on the black sea rising a falling about as high as the ship against the black sky whilst holding onto the rail in the howling (freezing) wind.
Once the ferry made it out of the firth the sea calmed down to merely rough and we all managed to drink and eat crisps without risking life, limb or dignity. It was a very tired seven who eventually reassembled in the van and made it back to dry land. Finally we arrived at Stromness. Finding the boat was easy and it turned out to be fantastically warm inside and we took up residence with a sigh of relief. The next day sounded easy by comparison – just get up and go diving…..
Sunday 4th October
Sunday dawned but we were all blissfully asleep right up to the moment that the skipper started the main engines at which point we were all vibrated out from our beds to end up blinking on the deck awaiting breakfast and diving – something which happened every day and avoided any of us needing to use an alarm clock. The boat, Invincible is a very nice home for the week with only one drawback (the toilets are all at deck level meaning you have to climb up out of the cosy confines of the cabins to brave the icy winds (and, one night, snow) to take a leak in the night). You basically get two breakfasts, we had toast and cereals first thing, then off for a dive before the full Scottish breakfast at around 10am.
Dive 1 was a typical Scapa shakedown dive – the battle cruiser Dresden – only 35m to the bottom and standing on her starboard side with the highest point at about 20m. Diving in Scapa is not for the faint hearted as the expectations of divers here are for deep, long dives with decompression a virtual certainty. The Dresden did not disappoint – a huge ship with lots of very good intact sections, deck guns in place and the whole bridge still projecting from the deck behind the bows. The entire wreck was shrouded in a huge school of small fish called Saithe about 10cm long and here in force. At times you really couldn’t see the wreck through the schools of fish. Occasionally seals were spotted zipping through the shoal where they punched holes in it as the fish parted ahead of them. Vis (where there weren’t several hundred fish in the way) was pretty good – in places as much as 15m or more.
On arriving at the surface after a tour of the decks and guns we had the pleasure of trying out Invincible’s double diver lift – which gets two divers out of the water and onto the deck in just under 2 seconds – pretty fast.
Breakfast was next on the agenda and we all felt pretty stuffed after eggs, bacon, beans, mushrooms and black pud, some of the divers went in search of antacids afterwards. Sadly, during breakfast we learned from Ian (the skipper) that the other boat with whose divers we’d shared the wreck on this first dive, had lost a man who was pulled unconscious from the waters of the Scapa Flow off the coast of Orkney on Sunday. It’s a sobering thought that this is not uncommon in Scapa and after this we all took a little more care with our diving I suspect.