JANUARY 2011: My Surface Interval named one of the best scuba diving blogs

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Scuba Diving Scapa Flow Day 7: swimthrough challenge on the Coln

Pushing further and further forward, the wreck of the Coln began to envelope us.
The walls, floors and ceilings of her vast structure were all around. Ahead the soft green glow led to our exit.
The wrecks had captured our hearts and minds in the past week. Now the Coln was literally holding us in her embrace.
Junior and myself were on the swim through challenge. First stop the stern.
The entrance was just above the seabed at about 33m, sitting diagonally down from the stern gun and capstan.
We sat there for a moment peering into the gloom until eyes adjusted and we could see the light ahead indicating our exit.
Pushing in and immediately turning right, we were inside the ship. At first, it was hard to assimilate the tangled structure with the inner workings of a ship as everything was sitting at 90 degree angles to where it should be. But as you properly orientated the pipes and suryfaces in your minds eye, it started to take the correct shape. The Holy Grail of this swimthrough was a tiny hatch. It sat low down and below our horizontal bodies and was easy to miss.
Shining torches into the darkness we could make out the emergency manual steering wheel.
Emerging at the wreckage created by the salvors, the race was now on for the second part of the challenge, the bow swimthrough.
Coming up on top of the wreck, the port side hull, we zipped along to preserve as much bottom time as we could.
The entrance to the second swimthrough is tucked on the starboard side of the bow, close to the seabed.
Beyond the entrance, we ascended upwards for a short while before the journey took us inwards and upwards.
Here human activity was apparent with hatchways leading deeper inside At the curved conning tower, we peered inside one at a time in a bid to make out any recognizable features.
We were now on the top line of the ship. Holes in the hull above us or in the deck to our left offered us many ways out. We continued forward until the metal around us gave way to the open sea. Just behind us was a lifeboat davit pointing the way to the shotline and our slow ascent to the surface.
Coming later (when I get to a proper computer): the pics and our final dive before bidding a sad farewell.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Scuba diving Scapa Flow day 7

It's all over, sadly, and we are going to enjoy a pint for the first time this week.....so blog for today will be posted tomorrow. Some great pics to come. Thanks for being patient.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Scuba Diving Scapa Flow Day 6

JUTTING from the seabed at 45m, the bow of the SMS Markgraf towered above us like a giant obelisk.
Covered in a small layer of growth, she imposed herself on the seabed, dwarfing the group of divers hanging a short way off the wreck and trying as they might to fit the structure into view.
The bow itself was unusual in itself. Unlike modern warships where the bow splays out from the water's edge, the Markgraf's bow sloped backwards.
Now upside down, it sloped upwards above our heads and would have cast a long shadow had the greenish water not filtered out the bright sunlight on the surface.
The giant ship behind it, quickly disappeared from view, the surrounding water casting a thick veil over the hull as it inched away from us, leaving the bow looking like a giant tower implanted in the sand beneath us.
Its dull greeny-brown appearance - the viz and the depth had taken the vibrant colour from the water around us - did nothing to diminish her majesty.
The shotline had taken us straight down the base of the wreck near the sea bed and Gun Number Five.
Pushing forward with the wreck on our right shoulder we were on the 'Gun Run'. A short distance away as we moved forward along the casement gun deck, we came across the Number Four gun, it's 5.9in barrel pointing towards the bow.
As the beams of our powerful torches followed the barrel of the formidable weapon, now hanging upside down, the shafts of light illuminated the armoured turret protected by a 6.75in thick layer of armour. A few metres above us, the deck arched over our heads and cast us in a dark shadow.
A large chain swept from the seabed, wrapping itself over the upturned hull. A few metres on, sections of the slab-like armour plating were disjointed highlighting the protection these sea-going gun platforms needed.
In the early 1900s the Markgraf dreadnought was at the cutting edge of a modern military fighting machine. But the crew was still using 400-year-old tactics firing broadsides on the enemy in the hope they could inflict more damage that they took.
On 25 per cent Nitrox, we were now tip-toeing close to our no decompression limits as we reached the bow. But that did not stop us from taking a few more moments to soak up - not literally - the awe-inspiring sight.
As our decompression obligations clocked up we slowly ascended over the hull until we had reached the cut-off point that heralded our slow ascent to the surface, interrupted by a series of short deco stops to safely off-gas.
Lunch was Morrocan Lamb Tagine with manly growling cous cous and scones - how cultured and civilised before we returned to depths and back to the Dresden and her cute little arse.
The shotline stopped short of the stern but landed us right above one of the gun turrets.
After the dive, this tantalising little window into another time got us talking about what it must have been to man one of those weapons. Cramped inside the claustrophobic box and shut away from what was happening around them they would have had to suffer the acrid smell of cordite and the deafening boom of the weapons. In the back of their minds they must have known it would become their coffin if the ship took a direct hit.
With the right wreck, a little knowledge and a some imagination can open up history and be a good reminder of the human sacrifices that are made by families when nations collide.
And talking about things colliding, a trail of murk pinpointed the spot where Junior and fin met wreck. He would probably have gotten away with hit but for the eagle eyes of Number One. Thankfully his shout of 'f**king hell' drew our attention to it. Tut tut!
Crawling into a doorway behind the turret we found the Officers' quarters and ticked off the first part of the 'bathtub challenge' as we spotted the enamel side where the senior crew would have soaked themselves.
From the gun turret we moved forward and along the mast to a viewing platform then back to a unique feature on the wreck, the breach of a smaller 88mm gun. Protected by curved plating, this was a precursor to an anti-aircraft weapons that adorned futures ships as they sought protection from 'hellfire from above'.
The conning tower rested on its side on the seabed, where the deck of the Dresden had peeled away but the armour plating behind the viewing slits made if difficult to see inside.
At the bow we turned and headed back over the hull and towards the surface.
Tomorrow: The last day and a return to the Coln and the Brummer.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Scuba Diving Scapa Flow Day 5

As the SMS Konig powered its way through the waves she would have been a daunting sight.
Face on in battle, the two decks of 12in guns that adorned the ocean-going leviathan would have rightly sent a shiver down the spines of British sailor even though in her only major encounter, the Battle of Jutland, she was battered by her enemy.
Beneath her thick armour skin, there was a hive of human activity needed to power 25,000 ton dreadnought through the choppy seas and keep the guns moving as they belched out fire and death on a grand scale.
Miles of cable and pipework criss-crossed around her insides, taking steam to power her giant turbines or messages between the fighting men around her many decks.
Thanks to the destructive salvage operation, the Konig now sits exposed, like a murder victim on a mortuary slab, her inner workings there to see.
The other battleships, the Markgraf and the Kronprinz Wilhelm, offered an insight into the scale, the Konig a glimpse of the machinery needed to power something so huge through the waves.
Dropping down the shotline that appeared to disappeared into infinity straight down to the wreck some 40m below, we followed the rear of the port side towards the damaged stern and bent rudder.
But it was as the six of us headed shallower over the damaged hull that the wreck came to life.
Amongst the wreck, there was an unnatural shape, unnatural in that it stood out by its perfectly curved structure.
This was part of the Citadel, the giant armoured box of engines that powered the boat. It must have been 12in thick. Beyond were the remnants of the engine machinery and a giant turbine. A perfect circle, where the gun turret mountings were.
The dive ended over the whale-back of the unpturned hull and we fired up our SMBs and made our way slowly to the surface above.
Though she may be broken up and upside down, the dive on her offered an insight into the technical engineering of such a dreadnought.
Dive Two took us to the SMS Brummer and another deep dive.
Thirty metres down the shotline, the concave bow of the wreck lying on its port side slowly started to take shape before our eyes.
She has changed considerably over the years and, recently, the weight of the heavily armoured conning tower has peeled the deck back like the lid of a can on tuna.
Now resting on its roof on the seabed, the conning tower pointed the way to the ornate railings of the bridge. Now twisted and turned, they still looked impressive.
Behind was one of the 5.9in guns that defended the light cruiser.
Eventually, the recognisable structure gave way to the tangled mish-mash of the rear of the ship left behind by the salvors.
Turning back, Junior and I ventured inside a passageway, following the light streaming in through a line of portholes that led our way.
Turning round we made our way back on to the deck, sitting at 90 degrees on the seabed, and hunted for a unique feature on the Brummer, railway tracks.
The ship had an extra deck to other cruisers of her class for her work as an early minesweeper and the railway tracks were used to move the giant spheres into place.
A hatch led the way inside with the railway tracks on the wall - or what should have been the floor - ahead of us. Following the tracks, we completed a short swim through and back onto the starboard side of the hull and headed back to the shotline.
The ascent was slow, after clocking up a bit of deco and then it was back to the boat.
Having dived all seven of the German wrecks, it is hard to say which was our favourite. Each has captured us in a different way. With four dives to go, it is now a challenge to pick the ones we want to return to.
Decisions, decisions.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Scuba Diving Scapa Flow Day 4

Like a ghostly apparition, she appeared from the grey beneath us.
At first, her details were hard to distinguish as our eyes adjusted to the unnatural shape sitting on the seabed.
Buts as she drew ever closer, her features became more apparent.
Twenty-five metres down, we were on the mighty SMS Markgraf.
Underwater, she appeared otherwordly. In fact, she was.
The Markgraf was built in a different era, when the oceans were a battlefield as nations fought for supremacy of the waves as the world tore itself apart during the Great War.
She was not meant to sit on the bottom, beneath the swirling surface.
But there she lay, down on her deck, providing 21st Century divers a window into history. It's heyday was a time that thankfully we have not had to endure, a time when the world was in turmoil.
As we followed the shoptline ever deeper, the true nature of the dreadnought became apparent. Squeezing between the starboard side of the upturned hull and a mass of wreckage that had fallen to the seabed, Junior and I found Gun Number Five pointing forward. Gun Number Six was close by.
Heading towards the stern - the Markgraf has a "peachy little arse", according to skipper Emily - Number One, Number Two, Junior, Ash, Grumpy (although to be fair he did smile after this dive) and myself were all about the 40m mark.
On EANx25, the clock was ticking and our time on the wreck was short. We only had a few more minutes to take in the structure beyond the gundeck, much of it lost from sight as she smashed into the seabed during her scuttling.
It was the little details that highlighted the real life of this 'ghost of the abyss'; the turrets were gunners rhythmically loaded the cannons to keep up a deadly barrage; the portholes, some with glass still in them, where, in quieter times, a sailor may have gazed out to cast his eyes over the vastness of the ocean.
These were the reminders the once she was a living breathing machine, a hive of human activity.
That is gone now she lies in her watery grave.
The scale of the wreck was hard to fathom. But she imposed herself on the watery surroundings she now finds herself in. To face her in battle would have been daunting. To face her on the ocean floor was awe-inspiring.
Taking a second to gaze up along the hull above us from 40m down, we were left dumbstruck. The Markgraf cast a shadow over the seabed and into our souls. We dived this for pleasure, but this was a 'destroyer of worlds', a purveyor of doom in its time.
At the stern, Junior and I moved off the wreck to glance back at her size, the hull disappearing off into the distance as the 15m viz of the surrounding sea took her from view, much the same way as it did in 1919.
Moving back over the upturned hull, I clicked into deco. At the 32ish-metre mark, we found blast damage where salvors had gone hunting for the valuable metal of the engines and torpedo tubes.
Thankfully they had exposed the ships innards like some haphazard surgeon, so we could see the giant prop shafts that should have been hidden beneath the armour coating. You had to really open up your hand to wrap fingers around the layers of steel.
Number One and Number Two were a little way back as Trev had taken a detour over the wreckage that spewed over the seabed.
We followed the hull stabilisers running along the length of her hull back towards the shotline. Our short time in the company of the Markgraf was up and we made a slow ascent to the surface. We may have shared only a few treasured minutes with her, the Markgraf left her mark and bewitched the six of all. Having taken us in her grasp she ensured that we would all be lured back to her one day (maybe next year).
After a lunch of French Onion soup, we headed to Burra Sound for dive two.
And the Tabarka couldn't be more different.
Sitting in about 12m worth of water, she was one of the blockships, sunk to keep at bay the Wolfpack of the enemy U-boats that preyed on the British Fleet at anchor.
Dropping off the dive deck of the Radiant Queen like lemmings, no air in our wings, we descended as the current swept us to her. Or in my case onto her as I hit the hull and bounced over to the lee side.
From the shelter of the hull, we headed inside, Junior leading the way as we swam, crawled and pulled our way through the twisty-turny gaps that took us from the broken bow and into her chasm-like innards.
Some of the openings required a deep breath in (deeper for some, ay Jono) while others needed a bit of wiggling, as Junior found out when he ended up on his back after squeezing through a triangle-shaped gap above the engines.
The current didn't let up and inside offered very little shelter as the water surged through any opening to buffet us in the stirring water that surrounded us.
It is fair to say the cylinders took a few knocks as we followed the underwater maze around the wreck.
As we emerged back onto the outside, we decided to end the dive with a bit of a drift.
Although Number One and Junior may have felt it a bit more than the rest as the lines of their reels were pulled diagonally as they spooled out with the surface current taking their SMBs.
Fifteen minutes later, after bumping into another wreck, our Superman flight ended as the current ebbed.
There was, however, still time for one unnamed diver to 'mount' Junior. After the spanking he got from skipper Emily earlier, he must be getting used to being everyone's bitch by now.
Tomorrow: The Konig and The Brummer.