Orkney is one of the world’s best dive locations, thanks to the presence of wrecks from the German High Seas Fleet, famously scuttled by their interned crews in Scapa Flow in 1919.
Of the 52 vessels sunk, seven remain on the seabed and it’s these awe-inspiring wartime ghosts that attract divers from around the globe each year.
In 2019, plans are being put in place to mark the centenary of the scuttling on June 21, with other events and commemorations expected throughout the year. A programme of community events will also be held to mark the significance of the scuttling, its impact and continued legacy in Orkney.
But diving in Orkney isn't just about the German High Seas Fleet. There is a wealth of other wrecks to explore, and an incredible array of marine wildlife to discover in our clean, cool waters.
Diving in Scapa Flow can be an incredibly rewarding experience, but it can also be quite a challenge to get your head around the sheer scale of what's on offer. Local skipper Bob Anderson, from Halton Charters, has given us some helpful hints and tips to help you start planning your own trip.
Season & Conditions
Visibility can be around ten metres during the summer months, but this increases when the plankton dies back during the autumn. Scapa Flow is a natural harbour and diving can take place in wind conditions that would see dive vessels tied up in much of the rest of the country.
Dipping a toe
Descending to the wrecks of the German High Seas Fleet might seem daunting to a new or less-experienced diver, but there is a way to discover if the underwater world of Scapa Flow is for you. Scapa Scuba offers try-a-dives at the Churchill Barriers, where the wrecks of blockships are a matter of metres away from shore in shallow water, and you’ll be accompanied by a fully qualified instructor. It’s an excellent first-step towards the full wreck exploration experience. Find out more via the Scapa Scuba website.
The blockships at the opposite end of Scapa Flow in Burra Sound were sunk to prevent enemy access to the great harbour’s western approaches. They now sit in the middle of a strong tide, so slack water is essential for diving. When the tide abates, divers descend to wrecks rich in colourful life, all thriving in the high energy of the turbulent water. The Tabarka always ranks as a firm favourite – a memorable ship amongst the trio to be found in the Sound.
Bread and butter
There are four German cruisers still on the seabed in Scapa Flow in around 36 metres of water. These smaller wrecks offer an easy introduction to the complexity of a warship, with the SMS Koln, still relatively intact. The three battleships remain the main draw to Scapa Flow, though. Resting upside down on the seabed at a depth of around 45 metres, these massive hulks often seem impenetrable at first sight. However, with careful exploration, they come alive and start to reveal their secrets. Some 3,000 divers a year visit Scapa Flow to explore these magnificent seven and return time after time, bitten by the bug!
Off the beaten track
A few wrecks lie off the beaten path in Orkney waters and offer an interesting diversion. The James Barrie is a Grimbsy trawler that sank in the approaches off Hoxa Head in 1969 and lies on her side, much like the day she went down. Further afield, the Manina lies at the base of Sule Stack, 35 miles west of Orkney, providing adventure diving in oceanic water.
Map of Scapa Flow's wrecks
Take a look at our map to get an idea of what there is to see on the seabed in and around Scapa Flow.
Now that you know what to expect, take a look at our checklist to make sure your visit to Orkney and Scapa Flow goes as smoothly as possible:
- Come prepared – check the NorthLink Ferries and Pentland Ferries websites to keep up to date with rules and regulations for travelling with dive equipment.
- Do your homework – Orkney has a rich maritime history, and the underwater experience is unique. Do your research and your experience will be all the better for it.
- Take diving seriously – a mistake underwater can have serious consequences. Be safe.
- Have fun – Orkney has a special allure, and there is always more to explore. Hopefully your Orcadian adventures will have only just begun.
Scapa Flow Wrecks
This website is the definitive guide to the maritime archaeology and history of Scapa Flow, featuring descriptions, imagery, 3D maps and much more.
Scapa Flow Visitor Centre & Museum
A fascinating collection of artefacts from Orkney's role as the home of the Royal Navy during two World Wars.
The home of the project to commemorate the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet in 1919.
Orkney Fossil & Heritage Centre
A fascinating museum and heritage centre, with exhibits focusing on Orkney in wartime and the building of the Churchill Barriers.
Safer diving with the RNLI
Safety advice, health checks and other information for divers from the charity that saves lives at sea.
If you’d like to experience life beneath the waves in Scapa Flow, you’ll find a number of experienced dive boat operators in Orkney, and there’s a dive centre too – Scapa Scuba – providing fully certified PADI training and guiding.