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Mark Cowan

The sea-bleached shot line cut a vertical path through my view as I plunged into the green waters of Scapa Flow. My torch beam poked into the deep and my regulator hissed with each breath until I caught sight of the upturned shipwreck I'd travelled 600 miles to Orkney to see.

Appearing below, like a ghostly apparition, was the SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm, a German battleship entombed on the seabed for almost 100 years. Following the hull as it curved down, my computer whirred like a train station destination board: 25 metres; 30; 35. Then, the metal wall disappeared and a cavern opened up before me.

Time ticking, I kicked into the shadow created by the overhanging gundeck. Sweeping my torch right and left, I suddenly stopped. Ahead, illuminated in the clear water, were giant cannons which had bombarded the British at the battle of Jutland. The 12-inchers vanished from sight. Apparently I was meant to be really scared down here. Astounded, I gobbled to hold my regulator as my mouth fell open.

“I’ve been sharing Trev's long hose," I'd said after a training dive six months earlier and those with a deviant mind had sniggered. Water was still dripping from my drysuit and it was time to be serious. Six Brummies (two were from Wolverhampton, but who can tell the difference?) were preparing for Scapa Flow. Apparently, this was where the big boys dived and old-timers with gravel rattling in their throats said that meant: Deep, dark and dangerous. They set the climate of our endeavour and 'We're gonna die' became a mantra that dictated our preparations.

Before heading up the M6 to the northern tip of mainland Scotland and the islands beyond, we'd watched video of the Scrabster to Stromness ferry see-sawing in the surf, and chewed on Stugeron. Only, when we arrived one August Saturday morning the sea rolled gently and we meandered past the Old Man of Hoy. Not the ragged extremes we'd been warned about.

For any diver who can stomach the long journey north, Scapa Flow is a world-class destination. Formed by the islands of Mainland, Graemsay, Burray, South Ronaldsay and Hoy, the natural harbour is home to shipwrecks spanning hundreds of years of maritime history, yet it is really the First World War German High Seas Fleet that draws divers.

The foundation for the Flow's lure was laid in 1918 when the bay became home to 79 ships, interned following the armistice agreement. In 1919, fearing the Allies were planning to snatch his vessels, Rear-Admiral Ludwig von Reuter quietly made plans to scuttle them. On June 21, he ordered crews to send their ships to the bottom. Later, in what some have described as the greatest marine salvage operation ever, engineers raised and dismantled almost all of those which sank. Today, three battleships, which turned turtle on their way down, three light cruisers and a minelayer remain on the seabed for exploration. And there's nowhere else in the world that can boast that.

ARRIVING in Stromness, we found our skipper Emily Turton, an exopera singer, with a wicked sense of humour and a little twinkle in her eye that said she already knew how good a diver you were. Emily had been chosen by scientific selection: her boat (called the Huskyan) had a lift, she served tea in pintsized mugs and didn't expect us to live onboard. No, she had a three-story house with hot showers, comfy beds and leather sofas. She cooked lunch every day; shepherd's pie, Moroccan lamb tagine, French onion soup. The timetable allowed chance to explore the island's history each evening.

A gentle breeze whispered along the harbour and the boat creaked on the mooring ropes as we ambled 100 yards from the house at 8.20am on Sunday morning. Emily headed first for SMS Cöln, a cruiser resting on her starboard in 36 metres of water. Owing to her size, we opted to first explore the bow section. With visibility stretching more than ten metres, the view grabbed us almost immediately. We glided past the bridge and conning tower. We were just below 30 metres, the water temperature was about 12 degrees Celsius, but the conditions disappeared; the wreck was in our faces.

At the bow, we found a swim-through that took us up into the ship and past the armoured control room coloured by the soft glow of green light streaming through holes in the deck. Plumose anemones and deadman's fingers dotted the hull; there was even some fishy-stuff shoaling around the lifeboat davits.

After lunch, we arrived at the SMS Karlsruhe. The most accessible of the German Fleet, she sits just 26 metres down — Stoney Cove is deeper someone joked. Exploring the wreck we found dozens of features; guns, anchor capstans, teak decking, the A-frame supports for her propellers. The revealing little treasures, that would have been missed in the mangle of metal were located and given life by Emily during a briefing that practically oozed engine oil, cordite and Teutonic sweat.

Over the next five days, we dived each morning and afternoon, exploring either the bow or stern of a chosen wreck. Each one offered something startling: the teak deck of SMS Dresden peeling open at the stern in 37 metres at her deepest; the knifepoint bow of SMS Markgraf slicing the sea to the surface 46 metres above, her "peachy little behind" and armour plating so thick I could barely wrap my hands around it; the innards of SMS König exposed by salvers like a murder victim on a mortuary slab; the rail tracks of the minelayer SMS Brummer 25 metres down; the access inside the shallow Tabarka blockship, and taking flight behind an SMB gripped by the current on exit.

Heading for port after the final dive, water plopping from our hair into the pint mugs of tea in hand, one of us said: "So we ay dead, then." (He's from Wolverhampton). We wanted to ask people why they misunderstood this remarkable diving location as a mortal challenge beyond the reach of most divers. But right then, all we could do was wonder.

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