09/05/2017
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Dive Scapa Flow – interview

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We talk to shipwreck explorer Rod Macdonald about what it’s like to visit Scapa Flow’s shipwrecks, and the techniques he uses to produce illustrations of the wrecks.

What are the main differences between illustrating a shipwreck and an 'ordinary' ship?

Illustrating a shipwreck is far harder than illustrating a ship on the surface when you can see the whole vessel in one glance. When you are underwater the visibility is more limited, in UK waters you can see usually at best 50 feet, more often just 20 feet. In tropical waters you can often see 100-200 feet so you can see far larger parts of the ship - but never the whole vessel. So sometimes it can be hard in poor visibility to work out where you are on a ship, or what sort of ship it in fact is.

You know what a ship is going to look like on the surface when it is pristine. When it has been wrecked and underneath the water for a long time you can take nothing for granted - as parts of the ship will have collapsed, masts, smokestacks will have fallen. The metal rusts and the paintwork all disappears - you are left with the metal being a uniform rusted steel brown colour.

The thin steel plating of superstructures and deckhouses often rusts away and turns to dust- leaving the lattice like structure of the inner framework visible. There may be a torpedo blast hole, an aerial bomb hole. You can’t assume anything and have to do a detailed survey of the whole ship and hull and video as much as you can

What techniques do you use to convey the underwater and ocean bed environment?

Seabeds differ - so we use a variety of different seabed effects. Some seabeds are clean rippled white sand - other seabeds off Orkney are shale with big Norwegian glacial melt boulders peppering it.

We use shadows to give a sense of depth and give scale to large features of the wreck. By darkening thy background you can give an impression of the seabed running away behind the wreck into the distance. We sometimes add the underside of the surface high above the wreck or look down from above the water, through the surface to the wreck below. We try to vary the wreck illustrations so they don’t all look the same.

Was there anything revealed by the latest ADUSDeep Ocean scans which surprised you?

The ADUS Deepocean scans are from a survey of the German wrecks in 2009 - and the scans of the blockships date from a 2012 sonar survey.

Professor Chris Rowland of Dundee University 3DVis Lab has applied the latest cutting edge software programs to reworking and reinterpreting the data - and the results have been astonishing.

The German wrecks and the blockships are seen as they have never been seen before - in intricate detail. For example, the German battleships are upside down and over the decades salvors blasted holes into the upturned flat bottoms of the keel in the vicinity of the engine rooms to lift out the valuable non-ferrous engine room fitments.

In the new scans you can look inside some of these holes and see things deep down such as prop shafts running from the turbine rooms to the stern. You can also clearly see where salvors have set off small isolated explosions to get at particular things - and where larger work has been done, for example in removing torpedo tubes - it is much easier to understand the extent of the salvage works.

Your latest illustrations, from Dive Scapa Flow, reveal an unprecedented amount of detail on the Scapa Flow wrecks - what sort of details might divers miss whilst exploring wrecks such as these?

The scale of the German wrecks is immense - the battleships and cruisers are each the length of two football fields. So on one dive, a diver will struggle just to swim round the whole ship without stopping.

One dive will just scratch the surface of these ships. On other dives, divers will spend the whole dive exploring just one area in detail. There is just so much so see and understand on each dive - and each time you dive you see something new - I do, and I’ve been diving them for 35 years!

There are particular ‘must see’ things to do whilst diving at Scapa Flow. For example the massive battleship Kronnprinz Wilhelm lies upside down in 38 metres of water. I've tried to highlight where, with a bit of perseverance, divers can go under the upturned aft deck and see the most accessible 12-inch big gun turrets that fired at the battle of Jutland in 1916.

Then forward from those aft turrets, they can work to see the seven 5.9-inch rapid fire anti torpedo boat casemate guns in their small turrets ranged along the beam of the ship in between main battery forward and aft turrets, the so-called Gun Run for divers.

Rod Macdonald is the author of Dive Scapa Flow, published by Whittles Publishing at £30.

The book is an updated edition of this classic dive book, to mark the centenary of the Scapa Flow scuttling, and provides a comprehensive and practical guide to the history and present-day diving of the Scapa Flow shipwrecks.

368 pages, liberally illustrated in black & white and colour with photos, charts and subsea scans.

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