Diving the Tabarka wreck
The Tabarka is one of the 3 remaining blockships originally sunk in Burra Sound to stop enemy vessels gaining access to the Flow.
On first appearance it is hard to see the appeal of this wreck. She is shallow, resting in 15m of water and in an area of extreme tides: at peak flow the water will run at 4 of 5 knots making for extremely tricky navigation through the channel. In addition the ship lies completely upside down so divers on the outside just see the bare metal of a hull covered in seaweed. Also, oddly for Scapa, the ship in herself has no great historical significance. Her design is not dissimilar to many of the merchant ships plying their trade at the time yet she achieved fame at the end of her working life when deliberately sunk in Burra Sound.
However, it is inside the wreck that the true magic of the Tabarka is revealed, making her one of the most memorable dives in the Flow. The high water flow nourishes the marine life, a riot of colour that adorns every surface. The ships cavernous cargo holds are pierced by holes that let rays of light pierce the gloom and create an atmospheric beauty second to none. Navigation is safe and easy with all traces of silt swept away in the strong tides so turning each corner reveals another beautiful panorama.
Diving the Tabarka
Diving the Tabarka is a unique experience in the Flow. This wreck can only be dived at slack water and the timing needs careful planning so it is common to see dive boats with divers fully kitted up and ready to go waiting for the last flurries of current to fade.
As she is shallow, there is no shot line on the wreck. The dive boat will steam into the very last of the tide and run over the wreck. When just above or just over the wreck, the order to jump is given and all the divers jump off the deck in quick sequence and descend as quickly as possible. Those last vestiges of tide ensure any laggardly divers are still carried in the right direction down to the wreck.
On the wreck
There are loads of holes to enter the Tabarka and many different routres to take but for the sake of narrative, we’ll start at the stern. There is no prop or rudder, merely the stub end of the hull that is just clear of the seabed at the most aft point. With an easy duck under the hull plates, a diver can swim into the aftermost hold. As the wreck is upside down all the main features are inverted. The prop shaft tunnel runs along the ceiling with the shaft still inside. The decks beams run away horizontally to each side and between the ribs in the hull, plates have corroded away and daylight now spills in. There is a tranquillity and calm in the wreck that is at odds with the hustle and hurry of the current and speedy descent but every now and then a finger of tide will reach in through one of these holes as a reminder that slack water is transient.
Following the propshaft forward, divers are lead to the first bulkhead. The hull rested on the engine for many years but over time the weight has taken a toll. The con-rods of the triple expansion steam engine have finally collapsed so now the pistons lie to the side of the crank to which they were once connected. The old Dive Scapa Flow dive guide used to have this view on the front cover, with a diver holding the old crown valve. Sadly this picture will never be taken again.
Moving forward, three boilers span the middle of the wreck. Their mounts are still recognisable on the bottom of the hull but as the ship is now turned turtle, they are over head. The boilers themselves form a wall over which divers need to swim to passage the wreck. Their firedoors are open and the boiler pipes exposed, corroded over time.
In front of the boilers would have been the engine room bulkhead. The plates have corroded allowing shoulder width passage through the lesser corroded ribs. This leads to the first of the two main forward holds whilst overhead the hull has collapsed allowing daylight to flood in. The holds themselves are large, open and still contain the stone ballast the ship would have been loaded with to help her sink.
The forepeak can be entered though the very first of the ships bulkheads. The space is split into two by an internal deck supported by a number of beams that are entertaining to swim through. The hull has corroded through in places letting light into the darkness. The two hawse pipes now rest on the seabed and poke out of the bow which still rises up to just below the surface.
The tide falls away to nothing during the dive before slowly picking up and running the other way. On a low water slack the current runs south and into the Flow allowing divers a long drift through the other wrecks. Conversely, high water slack runs into the Atlantic and requires a swifter return to the dive boat. Putting up a Surface Marked Buoy is not easy when the current gains strength and there is a many a diver that has emptied the string from a reel in the attempt!
The Tabarka is a superb dive on many levels. It is a thrill to dive in the strong currents and to feel powerless whilst being swept away at the end of a dive. The marine life thrives on the high energy, a wealth of vibrant, colourful and plentiful species that coat every surface. The wreck itself is an interesting explore with each new corner revealing something new in an atmospheric and exciting environment. All these factors blend together to create a memorable dive, which although a slight diversion from the historical importance of the Flow as a whole, still rewards with a rich experience.
Every available surface is coated with a myriad of colourful anemones all fed by the strong current. For those with a keen eye, even the spaces between the spaces are occupied by hosts of Caprellid or ghost shimps all holding on with their back legs. The amount and diversity of the marine life on the Tabarka is astounding. The wreck benefits from a number of factors that work to keep the life rich, varied and vibrant. The strong currents bring a plentiful supply of food to the sessile animals and keep predation at bay: most larger crabs and the like would be swept away in the tide so protecting their softer bodied prey. The seaweed is kept at bay, prevented from growing by the lack of light in the upturned hull so that the smaller animals are not hidden in a forest of kelp. Because the wreck is in such a high energy site, diver impact is relatively less. Dive times are short, dictated by slack and the animals are adapted to cope with the factors the current brings so divers are just part of a large range of physical stresses. The untold secret of the Tabarka is that this is scenic diving for wreckies!