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Shipwreck remnants visible at Churchill Barrier no. 3 at Scapa Flow, Orkney
Drysuits drying in the sun by Churchill Barrier No. 3
A Churchill Barrier Blockship wreck
Scapa Scuba divers descending to the wrecks at Churchill Barrier number 2
Two divers entering the water off Churchill Barrier No. 3
With its miles of stunning coastlines, Orkney is a world renowned diving location. Wherever you are in the region you will never be too far from a great diving spot with stunning wildlife and scenery providing a truly unique underwater experience. The water is also a treasure trove of sunken vessels ripe for exploration by divers.
The calmer waters of Scapa Flow lie like a lagoon within the surrounding islands of Mainland, Graemsay, Burray, South Ronaldsay and Hoy. This 50 square mile expanse of deep water is one of the largest naturally sheltered anchorages in the world and is a graveyard of sunken ships with over a dozen wrecks waiting to be discovered.
‘The Flow’ is world-renowned for its strategic importance in two World Wars as a safe harbour to the British fleet, and as a final resting place of many courageous mariners. In 1919 after the Armistice was signed, the high seas German fleet's final 'act of war' was to see that their 74 ships were sunk to the bottom of Scapa Flow. Many of the ships were salvaged but eight German wrecks still remain, preserved as a haven for diving exploration which can be viewed prior to dives with a detailed interactive 3D viewer.
The view of a ship mast and wrecks rising from the sea at Barrier 2 is an atmospheric one which many visitors travel to see. The wrecks were deliberately sunk in the First and Second World Wars to prevent boats from entering Scapa Flow between Orkney Mainland and South Ronaldsay, and are now perfect for diving. The four Churchill Barriers, which now act as causeways, where created during the Second World War to enhance these defences.
Although Barrier 1 is sometimes included on wider boat dive trips, all the barriers offer great shore dives, with Barriers 2 and 3 being the most accessible. They are ideal for beginners and those learning, with shallow waters and excellent conditions thanks to the lack of tide or current. You can explore multiple wrecks in a single dive as they lay so close together.
As you swim over the old steamships at Barrier 2, you’ll see many well preserved details including steam engine boilers and even handrails on deck. Barrier 3 is home to more wrecks, including the largely intact Empire Seaman which has a number of enjoyable swim-throughs, and The Martis which is a haven for marine life.
Towards the west of Scapa Flow, dives around three sunken blockships provide a fantastic experience in the Burra Sound. The very tidal nature of the Burra Sound means that dives are only accessible in slack water meaning that visibility is often exceptional at 20 to 30 m on average. One of the wrecks, the 2332 tonne Gobernador, is a magnet for marine life with a variety of species likely to be spotted. Diving the Tabarka as the sun streams in has been likened to visiting an underwater Cathedral.
Many other ships were also sunk in Burra Sound and now lay broken on the seabed. A drift dive can be arranged to take in the remains of most of the ships.
Whilst being famous for its wreck diving of German warships, there is also a large amount of scenic diving to be discovered in Orkney. Sitting on the edge of the Atlantic Gulf Stream, Orkney benefits from clean nutrient rich waters, which are not only perfect diving conditions but also in turn feed the diverse marine life.
Sites such as Iganess, the Old Man of Hoy and the North Shoal are popular with divers. Some of the smaller islands are ideal for spotting a range of fantastic wildlife, such as seals, porpoises and dolphins. Several types of whale are also seen swimming in the deeper waters around the region.