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.
A Tale of Five Wrecks, Two Walls, Forty Scallops and Three crabs….
Ok, you don’t have to organise a full week’s expedition for the Advanced diver badge but since I’ve fancied going to Mull ever since Kerrie enthused about here first wreck dives there I though I’d take the opportunity to run a trip there and get to go! Fortunately 11 other divers thought it was good place to go too. Thankfully Kerrie took on the catering organisation leaving me the fun bits of the diving to plan!
The trip up there was quite an adventure in itself for some of the divers – Richard and Jill had two goes at getting up there after their camper van blew up in Birmingham first attempt. Fortunately we were renting a huge place with plenty of beds so we managed to fit them in somehow.
The rest of us made a two day journey, staying overnight at Kerrie’s Mum and Dad’s place, who spent that night in their caravan to make room – a big thank you to them both., and also for all the lasagna….
Second day of the journey we all eventually made it up to the Old post office which was to be our home for the next week. It was a lovely spot, just next to the seafront – with an 80m shore dive easily accessible just 10 from the front door!
Once we were all settled in the skipper (Dave) came by to say hello and let us know where to pitch up the next day for our first dives.
Sad to say Kerrie’s master plan of eating lasagne that night was foiled by the fact that her mum froze them so well we couldn’t defrost them in time – instead had them the next day….
As we were self catering it was not a huge problem since we’d got lots of supplies laid in at Tesco helped by Kerrie’s Mums staff discount!
The first day of diving dawned with the TV saying that the weather everywhere else was awful (but we had a nice blue sky with fluffy clouds – the only place in the UK that was good weather all week in fact.
All arrived at the boat after big breakfast in the dive centre (couldn’t be bothered with cooking our own) and loaded it up with all the kit. It always seems a bit mad when you pile up 12 divers worth of kit on a harbour wall and see just how much stuff it requires to get 12 people underwater and back again safely.
First dive was a scenic dive on the drop off just on the point to the south of Lochaline – Ardtornish point. Good vis, and a rocky seabed totally dominated by squat lobsters which were quite annoyed when we moved their rocky homes around Good marine life dive and not a bad warmup. Some people warmed up at 19m and a few others (mostly of the Waterhouse clan) did a warmup to 29m…..
After this we had a good 3hour break for lunch provided by the dive centre, and steaming down the sound to the wreck of the Breda, we kitted up for dive 2. Nice to have a boat with onboard compressor which saved bringing extra spare cylinders etc.
The Breda is the first of the big, intact shipwrecks for which the Mull area is rightly famous. Of the 5 big wrecks( Breda, Hispania, Rondo, Thesis and the Shuna). Lying in Breda bay, just south of the end of the sound, the Breda is a very nice wreck, standing upright from the seabed in a slightly silty area. To be honest this was the worst vis dive that we did on the trip with vis varying from about 4m down to 2m in places. Mostly the dive was rather a dark green color due to the plankton bloom above our heads. One side of the wreck was covered in hundreds of long sea-squirts whilst the superstructure was topped by a complete carpet of plumose anemones. Having dived so much amongst the smashed wrecks of Weymouth and Portland finding such a ‘Disney shipwreck’ standing upright is a joy in itself.
Dive times on the wreck were fairly long as there is a lot of explore – mostly in excess of 45 minutes. On returning from the dive we headed back up the sound past a veritable armada of sails – some kind of regatta was going on.
Throughout the week we found ourselves surfacing facing a menacing array of sails as they raced up the sound and around the Island of Mull.
Returning to the old post office under a blue sky we dined on the (finally) thawed out lasagna and planned the next day’s diving. What could top an intact steamship wreck though ?
Well, obviously another one! Day two we headed up to the wreck of the Shuna – a 1500 ton steamship wrecked after colliding with the grey rocks in 1913. This ship has been on the seabed for over 95 years. Descending once again into a very green sea we found another upright shipwreck, with superstructure largely intact, holds still full of coal. Big peacock worms hung off the side of the wreck which stands at least 6m off the seabed. At the seabed (~35m) a few divers were rather narced and had to be shepherded back to the wreck…. A few went coal mining in the holds, one pair found a very ornate toilet apparently welded to the deck by corrosion and a good dive was had by all (although pony usage was a bit higher than planned – er hm.)
After this fantastic (long, deep) dive we headed off to the picturesque town of Tobermory where the ‘dry’ party (and Richard who’s suit died the day before) met us for fish and chips. Following a very relaxed surface interval during which we were all roasted alive due to the hot sun being totally incompatible with hanging about in thinsulate undersuits, we leaped back into the boat and headed for the Calve island sound which offers what diver magazine calls ‘one of the UK’s best wall dives”. It doesn’t disappoint. As a treatment for near fatal heat and sunstroke it was ideal. A god long drift past walls covered in life. Phil and Oliver even managed to find a pair of scuba scissors near one end so they came home in profit!
After the previous evenings planning session had resulted in the ‘BBQ plan’ being adopted we persuaded the skipper to put us in for a third dive to shop for dinner. He was a little skeptical about the chances of finding scallops and crabs but gave us the benefit of the doubt and put us in at Kilundine bay. There was little current, and depths of only 17m so not ideal for scallops you’d think. Clearly we all did think that and when we all returned we discovered that we all thought we’d been the only ones finding scallops – the boat groaned under the load of 5 goodie bags full! Three unlucky crabs also found themselves introduced to the MV Brendan”s decks. Fortunately the dry party had stocked up in advance on one shot BBQs and we had a huge scallop crab, sausage and chop feast that evening. Having spent a cumulative 2.5 hours underwater that day we were all a big tired and mostly retired to bed (or sofa in Stu and Karen’s case) quite early whilst the ‘techie divers’ (John, Steve and Brian) sat up at the kitchen table planning their descent and conquest of tomorrows target – the Rondo….
The Rondo is probably the strangest of the 5 wrecks laid on a very steep slope with her stern and rudder at about 5m and her bows buried in the seabed at 53m. She’s kind of like diving a wall made of ship! As this was an opportunity for the techie divers to ply their trade and see the bow they went in as a threesome and the rest of us visited the midships region. All went well although the 25mins of decompression was apparently a bit boring. Most of the rest of us passed them on the way up.
The wreck is very odd to dive, feeling like it’s nearly vertical although it’s at more like a 60 degree angle. The rudder sticks up from the stern making it feel oddly like the dragon prow on a viking longboat!
Second dive of the day was off to yet another big wreck: The wreck of the Thesis. This was a lovely site, the wreck intact and upright on the seabed absolutely covered with dead man’s fingers – it reminded me of all the rabbit ears in ‘Revenge of the Were rabbit’. Sadly Richard’s suit chose this dive to fail yet again so he had to sit most of it out (whilst drying himself out) but the rest of us had a very good time around the wreck with lost of opportunities for penetration. Steve got really excited as we entered the smallest room in the bow and had to show us a nudibranch he’d found! Poor thing was nearly frazzled by his 50W HID torch though.
Thursday dawned a very overcast and stormy looking sky, but, despite weather forecasts to the contrary, was pretty much a flat calm day – unlike the rest of the country HaHa! Ideal day for us to dive the top wreck in the sound – the Swedish Hispania. Sunk on 18th December 1954, after striking rocks, with her Captain still aboard and saluting as she went down, the Hispania is an amazing wreck. Strong tides sweep past her for most of the time, and these are often quite hard to predict. When we arrived there the skipper said ‘We’ve arrived but the tide is going the wrong way! – What kind of dive were we in for ? A fixed shot line provided an easy route to the wreck which was sitting in amazingly clear water. I can’t really compare the Hispania to any of the other wrecks I’ve dived in the UK. She’s been on the seabed for ~55 years but is nearly intact! Superstructure, deck, railings, spare propeller, cranes, lifeboat derricks and masts – they’re all in place! only the masts show any real damage having fallen across the deck but still connected at their bases.
The surface of the wreck shows strong evidence of why it’s so intact – everything is covered by plumose anemones – big ones. The nearest comparison I can come up with is the Thistlegorm on the Red Sea. Yes – it’s that good.
The wreck is tipped over on it’s port side – evidence perhaps of the fact that she listed to port before sinking ?
We were able to swim around the superstructure totally free of silt and to enter the holds. Here there was a considerable amount of silt, and lots of coal in her engine room area. Several pairs of divers were able to swim the length of the ship inside the holds and corridors alongside them
Outside the holds, the hull is totally covered in anemones and big peacock worms. This was definitely the dive of the trip for me and I know several others expressed the same sentiment.
Second dive that day was a drift alongside the Grey rocks – lots of kelp and small cod. Steve and Sarah went on a serious nudibranch hunt, and Kerrie and I followed them rescuing the poor things once they’d been blinded by Steve’s torch. Kerrie got quite expert at catching the displaced Gastropods…..
Having had such a great time on the Hispania on Thursday morning we planned another dive there for the last day and toddled off to have a curry in Fort William where the locals had laid on a whole pipe band (or does this sort of thing happen every night in Scotland ?)
Final day of diving dawned bight and sunny and we got out to Hispania again (where the skipper was again annoyed to discover misbehaving tides). The second dive on Hispania was just as good as the first and several buddy pairs entered the wreck and explored the interior.
This time a lots of large Pollock schooled about her masts and the slack was better enabling some longer dive times on the wreck. We all ended up joining up on the shot at 6m doing our deco whilst Steve went nudibranch spotting in the weeds growing off the line at this depth (found 3)
For our very last dive we returned to the water just offshore of our home for the week and dived the wall and the wreck of the John Preston. On any other trip this would have been a great dive – lovely wall dropping into the depths >80m down, covered in life, especially large featherstars and a couple of big edible crabs too.
Returning to Harbor we got our kit together and cleared the decks ready to leave on Saturday. For the first time I had a skipper congratulating me on the skills and ablilities of our divers – he said “The next lot won’t get half the dives you did – they’re never going to be that good at kitting up and I don’t fancy their chances in a current” We must have impressed him after all!
Finally, a huge thank you to Kerrie who did all the non diving marshalling on the trip, planned the menus, organised the food shopping and generally made staying in the old post office fun. Thanks also to Gill and Bethany for keeping the home fires burning (and the DVD player running) whilst we were all away diving for the day.