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.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Scuba Diving Scapa Flow Day 3

"Guns, I need guns."

Well the Konig-Class battleship SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm has enough to keep Neo happy in his fight in the Matrix.

And chief among them are the ten massive 12-inch cannons in the five gun turrets that bristled the deck of the heavily armoured dreadnought.

Despite the weaponry, she saw battle only once, in the Battle of Jutland when she kept up the devastating shelling of the British fleet. One can imagine the ear-splitting boom and the clouds of acrid smelling cordite as the gunners fought time and fatigue to keep up the barrage of deathly shelling.

Thankfully, some of those impressive armaments are still visible, even though the ship turned turtle as she sank to the bottom in about 37m of water when the crew scuttled her in a final act of defiance against the Allied forces.

The shotline takes you down to the the bottom of the hull, on the port side, a third of the way from the upturned stern - or pert little arse, as Emily would describe it, at about 22m. From there, we crested the armour plated hull and followed her down to the seabed, the wreck casting a gloomy shadow over our watery path into the darkness.

At about 30m, as our eyes became adjusted to the low light, we were presented with what looked like an overhang. But as the bright beams of our torch danced across the ceiling - or what should have been the gundeck when she plied the seas - our eyes caught sight of the first guns, two 5.9in weapons, one pointing sternwards.

But the best was yet to come - two of the 12-in gun turrets. As massive as the turrets looked underwater, it must have been cramped, deafening and dirty for the gunners keeping up with the action. Lying almost on top of each other, their massive barrels protruded outwards, their stepped armour giving an appearance that they were telescopic.

The second of the two disappeared into the gloom, but shining our torches ahead of us we pressed forward into the every narrowing passageway to follow the barrel along the ceiling.

After retracing out steps, we were back outside the wreck and heading towards her 'pert-little arse' at about 35m-ish. For such a huge battleship, it was tiny.

Ascending over the upturned hull, we moved forward past the two giant rudders. I was anticipating this would be the least interesting part of the dive - I don't want to dive on an upturned bathtub, I may have been heard to say as we planned the trip - but it actually provided a wealth of interest.

At one point we could see three different thicknesses of armour plating, from the 12in at and below the water line to the thinner cover on the upper decks. We also came across parallel rows of metal sitting across the wreck, these were the fixing supports for the heavy armour and are not seen anywhere else.

As we neared 50-odd minutes were made our way slowly to the surface.

Dive two was on the Dresden, another of the lightcruisers and the only one sitting on her port side. She lists over more than others so it took a bit of time to get orientated as we dived the forward section, as he deck is slowly peeling away from her body, like a partly opened can of tuna, to expose her innards.

Who said Junior's an anchor?Number One, Number Two, Junior and myself decided to take a slight detour and we followed her anchor from the deck hawse and she stretched across the sandy seabed for a hundred or so yards.

That seen we headed back to the magnificent bow, festooned with a carpet of marine growth, including the beautifully bright plumrose anemones and white deadman's fingers. For those interested in their feeding habits, spending a few minutes simply watching them pulsate in the gentle current is an eye-opener.

With our no-decompression limits approaching, we headed towards the shallower part of the deck before making an ascent to the surface, Number One showing us the right way.

Jono and Ash, meanwhile, had headed back along to wreck to take in her conning tower and bridge. The control tower itself is resting on the seabed, blocking the tiny hatch inside. Peering through the letterbox sized viewing slits in the armour plating, the brassing dials and fittings are still visible.

The pair also saw the 5.9in gun resting close to the bottom and the giant lifeboat davits that curved round to rest on the seabed below. With their computers indicating they were approaching no-deco limits, they returned and made their way safely to the surface.

Viz was about 8m, temperature about 12degrees and only slight current on both wrecks.

Tomorrow: The Mighty Markgraf

Catch points, what catch points?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

scuba diving Scapa Flow day 2 more pics

Scuba diving Scapa Flow day 2

The fierce hiss of the cold water of Scapa Flow roaring into the ballast tanks of the Coln lightcruiser would have been deafening.

In a final act of defiance, the German crew were putting into action 'Paragraph 11'. Each member of the skeleton crew were doing their bit to scuttle the ship.

It had been a miserable and cold seven months interned in the Orkney Isles as the politicians dithered over the spoils of war following the declaration of peace in November 1918.

But as the sailors raced around the ship opening the valves that would fill the ship with water and take her to the sea bed some 35m below, the spirits would have been warmed.

Thanfkfully, their defence of the Motherland and two-fingered salute to the political windbags has left us one of the world's best shipwrecks.

The full scale of the oln slowly emerged from the green-tinged water as we descended the shotline to her port side at about 17m. The line from the surface is tied off close to one of the lifeboat davits about two thirds from the bow.

Following their arch-like shape, we headed deeper along her deck, sitting at a 90-degree angle from the sandy bottom.

With the wreck on our right shoulder, the six of us headed forward towards the bridge. Now just a skeleton framework, the bridge's soft steel outer has rotted away and, where she should be linked to the conning tower is now a twist of metal.

Initially, I missed the importance of the lump of metal sitting isolated from the bridge, until I recognised the range finder sitting on top of the armour-clad control tower with the ring of narrow letterbox-sized viewing slits. From here the crew were have operated her 5.9in guns that have long since disappeared from the wreck.

Continuing foward we passed the anchor chain capstans, the holes for the crew to manually turn the winch in the event of mechanical failure still visible.

Drifting off the wreck at the bow and looking back, the wreck looked immense, the deck disappearing ghostlike into the distance in one direction and the straight lines of her bow in the other. Her body was covered in a layer of marine growth with colourful plumrose anenomes and bright deadman's fingers scattered across he skin.

Most of the dive had been spent in that 30m region so we headed shallower and headed back along her portside, poking into the surface damaged by deterioration and salvage. Part way along, we can across the fixing for the armoury that looked like a three tiered wedding cake with a nipple on top (words of Emily, our skipper, not mine).

Sadly, we were soon at the limits of our EANx30 and had to ascent back to the surface. A massive shoal of fish, (fishy-shit, according to wreck-loving Emily) schooled around the davits as it to give us a sent-off.

We had only scratched the surface of the immense cruiser.

After lunch and another chat with Emily (her briefing are as in-depth as you could hope, and such are the directions, you can't fail to spot all the features) we headed to the second dive of the day, The Karlsruhe.

Sitting in about 26m, the years and the salvors have not been kind to her. Parts of the deck at her bow have slipped towards the seabed, leaving much of her innards exposed. It means that the anchor capstans can be seen through the wreckage to a platform and hydraulics that should sit two decks down.

The great thing about the Karlsruhe is that her guns are still there. One sits about seven metres below the shotline, lying on the seabed. Her barrel was impressive, but the loading breach of the gun, that is usually hidden away within the turret, looked huge.

We headed towards the stern past a lot of twisted metal at the damaged midships trashed by salvors. Jono and Ash found a smim through and disappeared inside her body while Andy, myself, Number One and Number Two, headed through the wreckage, past another gun (this one with her barrel inbeded in the sand) and onto her hull.

While the bottom of the ship might not sound that fascinating, it provided some of her best features. The hudge rudder lay on the sandy bottom just behind the giant A-frames that jutted from her bottom. Support for the giant propellors that powered her through the oceans, the frame was covered in vibrant coloured marine growth - or hairy, as Emily called it - they were instantly recognisable as a unique feature to the cruiser.

At the rear of the ship her teak decking is still intact, although for how much longer remains to be seen. There was a small capstan on the rear that looked stunning. However, it is feared that the ravages of time and the sea will take her to the seabed as well.

Fifty-five minutes later it was time to head back to the surface and a well-earned pint mug of tea. Yep a pint mug. During the post-dive chat, Rich, sorry Number One reminded us that the wreck was no deeper than Dosthill. The quarry will never be same again!

We would all agree that today presented us with two of the best dives we have done and we could spend days on them both, getting to know their intimate secrets that have been hidden beneath the waves for 90-odd years.

Visibility was about 10m, and water was about 13 degrees. Current was non-existent on the Koln and only slight on the Karslruhe as it pushed us towards the stern. While the wind was Force 4s and 5s, because they were north-westerlies, the surface was choppy but happily devoid of too much swell.

Tomorrow: The first of the giant battleships.