The recent DLL trip to Scapa Flow was 3 years in the making (for me at least). In August of 2009 I was a newly qualified Advanced Open Water diver, with no UK diving experience other than Wrasybury, Vobster and a drinking weekend down in Weymouth. I was still very much on the fence about UK diving (cold water and not-so-good viz?!?!). I signed up to the 2009 DLL Scapa trip with zero expectations, and a high degree of trepidation at spending a week of diving in the middle of nowhere, with 11 other people, most of whom I had never met.
That trip was a watershed moment. I returned to London after the week in Scapa certain of the following:
- UK diving is awesome, if Scapa was anything to go by.
- I wanted to do Technical diving – I had never heard of technical diving before the trip, but spent the trip wishing I could be like Andris and Matt (newly qualified ART-ers at the time) with all their dive planning geeking, getting into the water before the rest of us, getting out after the rest of us.
- The DLL bunch was tres cool – Those from the 2009 trip are firm friends and I am now a fully qualified fixture at DLL trips and events.
- I needed to buy a drysuit – At this point the only dive kit I owned was a mask and a Suunto Gekko I bought especially for the trip. I rented a drysuit. I used 3 on the trip. They all leaked on me.
Fast forward to 2012, I’ve since qualified to Normoxic (open circuit), and recently took the plunge into rebreather (closed circuit) territory. And I now have all the accompanying kit – including a drysuit! I had been nagging Alex for a Scapa trip in the subsequent years. I was chomping at the bit to revisit Scapa.
Scapa Flow is one of those unique diving sites where the forces of nature and man have coalesced resulting in what is a truly remarkable dive location. Scapa Flow is a body of water in the Orkney Islands that is naturally sheltered by surrounding islands, and it has a sandy bottom and average depth of around 30 metres. Its natural features make it one of the great natural harbours/anchorages of the world and it is best known as the site of UK’s chief naval base in World Wars I and II. For the diving obsessed, this means wrecks! Lots of them! In great diving conditions (by UK standards) – great viz and little or no current! The cream of the Scapa crop is a fleet of WWI German Warships scuttled at the end of the war.
We started our long journey to Scapa one Friday morning and finally arrived in Stromness on Saturday afternoon, following a drive up the length of the UK, an overnight stop in random Pithlochry, and a ferry ride from Thurso. If there’s one downside to Scapa, it is its distance from civilisation. Though having said that, this could be considered a good thing – it filters out the unwilling and therefore unworthy!
As a boat of 12 technical divers, we spent the rest of Saturday afternoon in pfaffing bliss, setting up kit all ready for the following morning and the start of the main event – diving!
So did the diving live up to expectations? Hell yeah. From the first dive of the trip, the Coln, a WWI German Cruiser, I was again amazed. The amount of sealife on the wreck was astounding. You could not see the wreck for the fish. Being on a rebreather, I had many a near-miss collision with the odd distracted fish. The wreck was blanketed in soft coral. The 115 metres length of the wreck offered many a swimthrough, lots of crevices and places to explore. At a modest maximum depth of 35 metres, we all got some good bottom time in. An hour and a half later and back on the boat, we were all giddy – and that was our checkout dive!!
Each day we had a new favourite best dive of the trip. On Monday it was Kronprinz Wilhelm, one of 3 WWI German Battleships in Scapa. At 45 metres depth, and 145 metres length, she was deeper, darker and more foreboding. But oh what a set of guns! By Tuesday, the best dive of the trip was the mighty Markgraf, another battleship, sister to the Kronprinz. The Markgraf lies almost completely upturned but it is quite well preserved. Swimming along its hull heading towards the rudders, I marvelled at the scale of the wreck. It kept going and going and going. On Wednesday it was the Karlsruhe, largely broken up, a jumble of nooks and crannies to explore. On Thursday it was the Dresden, another light cruiser. Descend down the shotline onto a massive gun! The wreck had swimthroughs and penetrations galore, and swathes of soft coral blanketing the wreck. On Friday, our last day of diving, Ian let us pick two of our favourites to dive again – we were spoilt for choice but went with the Coln and the Dresden, the perfect way to cap 6 days of the best of UK diving. Making our ascent from the Coln we were even visited by a juvenile seal out for a snack!
MV Invincible was our home for the week, and Ian and Fiona our hosts. Once we got used to bumping our heads in the cramped quarters, we came to appreciate it for what is was – a great diving operation. Ian ran the boat with a deft hand – providing fills when we needed them, with whatever mix we wanted, happily accommodating both open and closed circuit divers. Fiona kept us nourished – pre-breakfast in the morning before the first dive, a full fry-up breakfast after every morning dive, and a cup of warming homemade soup after the second dive of the day. The boat itself had a large kitting up area, dive lift, drying room, a kitchen and dining area, and 2 bathrooms on deck. Below deck were the 6 cabins, and a lounge equipped with an honesty bar and television/DVD player.
We headed out to Scapa Flow from Stromness Harbour every morning around 8 am, were in the water for Dive 1 by 9am, fed and ready for a snooze by 11:30 am, in the water for Dive 2 by 1 pm, and usually out, all showered and back at port by 3 pm.
Stromness is a quiet little village. We had explored ALL of it by Sunday afternoon. Our venue for pints and an Olympics catch-up was the Ferry Inn. There is a grocer/baker and Coop in town where we picked up supplies for the lovely dinners we made on the boat (V’s bolognaise, and Kristine’s beef stroganoff). We managed to find a restaurant (yes one) – the Hamnavoe, which served great seafood, and was the venue for our last supper in Stromness. Stromness also has Scapa Scuba, a very well equipped and friendly dive shop/school. We dropped by the shop most afternoons for the odd bit or bob, and because admit it, we all like looking at shiny new kit.
Outside of Stronmess, we ventured over to Kirkwall to check out the Italian Chapel (a chapel built by Italian prisoners of war in WWII), the Orkney wine company (which does not really make wine – it makes specialty liquors from Orkney sourced ingredients), and a few of the group managed to check out the Highland distillery. Kirkwall was also where we went for our curry night of the week. Mostly we spent our evenings chilling, drinking on deck enjoying the stillness of the evenings and serenity of the bay, chatting about the great diving and rare mishap – only 1 really, a certain someone, let’s call him “Zippy C”, forgot to zip up his dry suit before jumping in.
The week zoomed by. Before we knew it we were packing up and getting ready for the journey back down to London. We had lived in a wonderful diving bubble for a week, far away from the bustle of civilisation. I returned back to London, where mullets have not been seen for 20 years, the land of traffic, and crowds, and Wifi, and my reality. The DLL Scapa Flow week had again been a winner – great diving, great company, and fun times. Having now done the trip twice, would I go back? Unequivocal answer is yes. Next time I bring a scooter!
By Aileen Small