• Divers on the wreck of the Karlsruhe in Scapa Flow - image by Kieran Hatton

Diving

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.

The German High Seas Fleet in Scapa Flow, November 1918. Image courtesy Orkney Library & Archive


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

The dive season in Orkney traditionally runs between Easter and early November, with the sea temperature reaching around 13 degrees Celsius by mid-September.

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.

Jumping in

© Kieran Hatton

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

Double-tap a marker to view an info box.

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.

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.

Win a Three-Night Break to Orkney

This unforgettable three-night experience for two adults will take you to the spectacular Orkney Islands where you’ll follow in the footsteps of mighty Viking rulers, learn about wartime heritage during two world wars, experience breathtaking natural landscapes, and explore the picturesque town of Stromness.