A total of 52 of the great ships sank beneath the surface, the remaining 22 were beached or prevented from being sunk by Royal Navy boarding parties. Now, with all that intact metal on the seabed, you can imagine what sort of scene wreck divers can witness underwater today. Right? Wrong. Sadly for divers, what followed from the early 1920s right up to 1946 was what is still the greatest marine salvage operation in history. The firm of Cox and Danks raised, towed and dismantled no less than 45 of the sunken vessels, and the remaining seven – battleships Konig, Kronprinz Wilhelm and Markgraf, cruisers Dresden, Coln and Karlsruhe, and mine-layer Brummer – were left in various states of disrepair after some further salvage and blasting work by other parties.
Thankfully, German craftsmanship back then was as good as it is now, and so while the Karlsruhe, Konig and, to a lesser extent, the Brummer are deteriorating rapidly from a recognisable ‘ship-shape’, the other ships – in particular the 115-metrelong Coln – are holding up pretty well considering they have been underwater for more than 100 years! On the magnificent Coln, you can still see the teak decking, 5.7-inch deck guns, capstans, bollards, armoured conning towers and much more.
Coated with a thick layer of silt and draped with sponges, plumose anemones and dead man’s fingers, it can sometimes be hard to make sense of certain objects, but get your brain orientated as the ship lies – on its side for the cruisers like the Coln – and you can soon build up a picture of what it must have looked like pre-sinking.
The sheer size of the ships is daunting, but concentrate on one area – like bow to midships, for example – and you will be able to really enjoy what the wrecks have to offer. Did you know?Derived from the Old Norse Skalpaflói, which means ‘bay of the long isthmus’, Scapa Flow refers to the thin strip of land between Scapa Bay and the town of Kirkwall.Essential informationLocation: Scapa Flow, Orkney Islands, Scotland Depth: 22m-36m Diver level: Advanced SMS ColnScapa Flow, UK 58.53.52 N, 03.08.27 W