Surveying Orkney’s Marine Archaeology

The wrecks of the First World War German High Seas Fleet that lie on the seabed in Scapa Flow, Orkney are famous throughout the world as a diving and archaeological resource.


diving in Scapa – credit Ghost Fishing

These wrecks include battleships, battlecruisers and other distinctive vessels from the First World War and provide marine archaeologists and historians with an opportunity to examine at first hand German warships from this period.

During the interwar period, forty-two vessels were re-floated and salvaged for their scrap in one of the greatest marine salvage feats of all time, but many of the important structures from these vessels were left behind on the sea bed.

Following on from the successful completion of phase one of the project in 2017, archaeologists from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) have teamed up with SULA Diving to undertake a second phase of the Historic Environment Scotland-funded marine archaeology project to examine Scapa Flow’s salvage sites. This phase of the survey commenced in June 2018 and concentrates on the debris left behind when the wrecks in deep water around the island of Cava were salvaged in the interwar period, including vessels such as the battleship Kaiser and the battlecruiser Moltke.

The project is led by Pete Higgins, Senior Project Manager (ORCA) and Kevin Heath (SULA Diving) on behalf of Historic Environment Scotland. The team aimed to provide baseline data to aid long term monitoring and protection of the wreckage, and to contribute to our understanding of the construction and equipment of these vessels.

Sidescan Sonar image of debris from the Kaiser including masts boom arms and samson posts Image SULA Diving

Sidescan Sonar image of debris from the Kaiser, including masts, boom arms and samson posts. Image: SULA Diving

The project has been fortunate to enlist the voluntary services of experienced divers from the Scapa Flow diving community, Heriot Watt University, the British and Orkney Sub Aqua Clubs and divers visiting Orkney from all over the world.

The scrap sites include major components of ship structures and equipment such as masts, searchlights, plating, steam pinnaces (small boats serving as tenders on the larger ship), funnels, spotting tops and so on. As this wreckage is relatively broken up and lacks statutory protection, the sites are currently vulnerable to modern salvage activity.

Pete Higgins said:

“This is an important marine archaeology project surveying what remains of the German High Seas Fleet warships that were salvaged from Scapa Flow in the inter war period. It is very exciting to see divers from all over the world participating in marine archaeology. Their work is helping us retrieve valuable information on warships that we thought had been effectively destroyed seventy years ago.”

Philip Robertson, Historic Environment Scotland’s marine expert, said:

“Nearly 100 years since the High Seas Fleet was interned in Scapa Flow at the end of the First World War, HES funded this project to help us understand and protect, where possible, the important information that has been left behind from these times and which helps us appreciate Scapa Flow’s key role as a naval wartime harbour and the incredible story of the scuttling and salvage of the High Seas Fleet.”

The project data and results will be available to the public through the Scapa Flow Wrecks website , along with various other platforms and exhibitions.

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