Tuesday, August 23, 2005


Diving deep in Scapa Flow


By Suzy Bennett
August 20, 2005

The German Fleet in Scapa Flow.

ORKNEY ISLANDS, UK -- Mid-afternoon, 60 feet beneath the sea, Scapa Flow, Orkney. To one side of me, a shoal of crimson-coloured fish weaves in and out of a shipwreck. Below, a forest of soft corals is swaying in a gentle current. In the distance, iridescent jellyfish drift by, their frilled skirts shimmering in the sunlight.

As a column of sun lights up a cobalt-blue starfish, and a pipefish flutters in front of my dive mask, I struggle to re-adjust my view of what is and isn't Britain, because, from where I'm floating, it's doing a remarkable impression of the Caribbean.

Admittedly it's a fairly chilly Caribbean - the water temperature is 12C and I have to wear a dry suit to keep myself warm - but the sea life isn't so different. There are fish here as brightly coloured as their tropical counterparts, and corals that rival any I have seen in balmier climes.
This, scientists believe, could be one of the effects of global warming, and it's alarming. If sub-tropical marine species can survive this far north, it's only a matter of time before our environment is dramatically affected. But it's fascinating, too. The last time I dived in British waters was 10 years ago, and the highlight was seeing a shopping trolley furred in algae. This time, I feel as if I'm swimming in an out-take from Finding Nemo.

It's a similar story all along our coastline. Lured by rising sea temperatures, increasingly exotic creatures are starting to call Britain home. Leatherback turtles, ocean sunfish, sharks, dolphins, seahorses and jellyfish are now common sights along the west coast. Only this year, coral reefs were discovered off the south coast of England and the north coast of Scotland.

Unsurprisingly, these marine visitors are getting a warm reception. The British Sub-Aqua Club, the UK's main training body, reports that more than two million dives will be taken here this year, making scuba diving one of our fastest growing sports.

There are more than 500 regularly dived sites in the UK - at inland lakes, beaches and out at sea - but I'm at Scapa Flow, Britain's best known scuba diving destination.

"The Flow", a 144-square-yard lagoon encircled by the flat, heather-covered Orkney Islands, was the Royal Navy's principal anchorage during both world wars. Lying on its bottom is one of the wonders of the diving world: the remains of the German Imperial Navy's High Seas fleet, scuttled here by its commander on June 21, 1919, after a long and miserable internment.

Of the fleet of 74, most have been salvaged or have disintegrated. But still remaining within a few square miles of each other are the carcasses of seven vessels: three battleships, three light cruisers and one destroyer. In their time, they were part of a formidable force, which was a serious challenge to Britain's traditional naval supremacy.

I'm diving the SMS Cöln, one of the light cruisers, and the most intact wreck in the group. With me is Lindsey Cradock, a guide from Scapa Scuba, one of 15 operators that run daily tours to these ships.

Visibility is about 30 feet, and the Cöln is about 525 feet long, so it's impossible to see the entire wreck, but there's no shortage of things to look at.

The hull is a mass of swaying, trembling life, alternately toothy and tentacled, shelled and spiny, feathery and hairy. There isn't one inch of metal visible in this submarine city. Plumose anemones grope for food in the current with their delicate tentacles, a cuttlefish squirts ink at us, moray eels lurk in the shadows and lobsters lie in wait with their claws open like the arms of a child waiting for sweets. It's as if I'm swimming in an aquarium, only it's wild and natural.

Twenty minutes into the dive, Lindsey beckons me to swim deeper towards the stern of the ship. Soon I'm in a quiet, eerie world, floating over a graveyard of ghostly masts and spars.

Among the gnarled wreckage, Lindsey points out the grainy outline of the Cöln's armoured control tower, identifiable by its thin viewing-slits, and she shows me barnacled anchor chains and capstans.

Farther back, we spot the remains of gun turrets, steel searchlight platforms, lifeboat davits and, among the debris on the sea bottom, what could be a crow's nest. On the side of the wreck, portholes give us glimpses into the ship's cavernous interior and, through the dark soup of microscopic creatures inside, we catch an occasional tantalising glint of brass missed by salvagers.

I've dived about 300 times around the world, but I've rarely been so captivated by what I've seen. These ships have lain in this watery grave virtually untouched for more than 85 years - I feel as if I'm diving in a museum, where the only sound is my own deep breathing.

Back on the dive boat Lindsey explains the allure: "Some of the things you see down there beat the hell out of anything in the tropics," she says. "There's a real prettiness to the wrecks because the light is always changing."

Diving in Britain is generally more challenging than in warmer seas, and it requires special training. Before my dive on Scapa Flow I took a one-day dry-suit course, diving on shallower ships nearby to practise my buoyancy and acclimatise to the temperature.

I needed extra equipment, too: a 24lb weight-belt to compensate for the air in my dry suit, thick gloves to keep my hands warm and a torch to see in the darker waters.

Visibility in Britain can vary enormously. In western Scotland and Cornwall where the water is clear and unpolluted, visibility can reach up to 65 feet. On the south coast, the average is about 23 feet. Occasionally visibility is nil, and you can't even see your own hand in front of your face.

On the whole though, British diving is adventurous and exciting. As Lindsey puts it: "In warm water, everything is laid out on a plate for you and you get complacent. Here, you have to be on the ball. You sometimes have to look a bit harder for things, but it's much more rewarding.

There are colours you could never capture with a tin of paints.


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