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Scapa Flow overview



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Stern area on the Tabarka, Scapa dive site - courtesy of Tony Gilbert
Current inside the Tabarka, Scapa dive site - courtesy of Tony Gilbert
Diver on the Tabarka, Scapa dive site - courtesy of Tony Gilbert
Engine crank on the Tabarka, Scapa dive site - courtesy of Tony Gilbert
Anemones on the hull of the Tabarka, Scapa dive site - courtesy of Tony Gilbert
Kelp on the Tabarka, Scapa dive site - courtesy of Tony Gilbert
Ribs on the Tabarka, Scapa dive site - courtesy of Tony Gilbert
The Tabarka, Scapa dive site - courtesy of Darren Mills
The Tabarka, Scapa dive site - courtesy of Darren Mills

Scuba Diving in Scapa Flow, Scotland, UK, Europe

Dive Site: Tabarka

Location: 58°9'N; 03°20'W

Description: 2600 ton freighter

Length: 20 metres approx. (65 feet)

Depth: 15 metres to seabed (50 feet)

Visibility: 15 metres (50 feet)

Rating: ****

The Tabarka makes a good second dive for later in the week when tissue saturation is going through the roof. It lies upside down and easy penetration is possible through large holes in the bow, with plenty of space leading to the engine room. There are two massive drums over 2 metres in diameter inside. This is a picturesque dive with many a photo opportunity for those who have cameras. There is a strong current flowing around the wreck that clears any silt away, so the wreckage may be visible from the surface. It lies amongst kelp forests. The sides of the wreck do not offer much to look at, you need to get to the bow or stern and venture inside. The light from the surface means a torch isn't necessary, but it would help to light up the abundant sea life. You will find shoals of fish, huge starfish, wrasse, sea urchins and much more around the wreck and inside it. This would make an ideal first wreck dive in cold water. A free ascent is necessary as the strength of the current does not allow for a line to be used. Be sure to look up on ascent in case of any other traffic passing overhead.

Reader Reviews:

A must dive when in Scapa. As said above there is good vis and plenty to see. I took about 40 photos on this dive and loved every minute of it.

Darren Mills, BSAC Dive Leader

Without question a top dive. The visibility is always fantastic and the upturned hull makes way for easy access inside. The light streaming in through the missing plates lends itself a cathedral like atmosphere.

Richard Nokes, BSAC Dive Leader

One of the best dives I've ever done was in June 1996 and I still rave about it today. The blockship Tabarka is a shallow dive which means for nitrox divers, she is just perfect for getting a long bottom time without high decompression penalties. She's upside down, but pretty much intact so penetration is easy. Inside she looks a bit like a half timbered house without the plaster infills. That day the atmosphere inside the wreck was magic, strongly reminiscent of a cathedral as the sun streamed through the portholes echoing the effect of stained glass in a church. So what was the visibility like? Well the viz was mouthwateringly clear, but the best bit was that a seal had followed me into the Tabarka. Every so often I would get a tug on my fins, so I would turn around to see what my buddy wanted, to find him grinning from ear to ear. I couldn't understand what was going on, as the seal was not obvious. This continued as the seal stayed and played. Ten years on, that dive is one that I have always treasured.

Rosemary Lunn

The currents make this a superbly challenging dive. Our skipper (on the John L - recommended) dropped us in just ahead of slack water. Negative entry required - the challenge is to get down and 'into the lee' of the wreck in order to get inside it. Once inside, the boilers and gaps in the structure create a fantastic atmosphere. Exiting the wreck once the current has picked up again is a bit like being a parachutist - the current rips you away as soon as you are outside the hull. What fun!

Adrian Simpson, PADI Divemaster

An amazing spectacle of a dive. A heavy entry to get down to the wreck and out of the current but once inside I didn't want it to end.

Awesome atmosphere and wildlife and I will always remember my SMB flying off horizontally out into the current followed by me on the end. A must dive.

Ollie Brown, PADI Divemaster

One of the most enjoyable dives of Scapa Flow. The only dive I did twice the week our club was there. Got some great video footage of all of the inside. The engine room is there with both boilers still intact. Just make sure you don't stay too long when the tide starts to turn.

Garry Maltby, BSAC Dive Leader

South of Stromness lying between mainland and the Island of Hoy is the small island of Graemsay. To the east is Clestrain Sound, deep and wide, however to the west between Hoy and Graemsay is a jumble of rocks known as the Hoy Skerries. During WWII blockships were used to block the narrower channels around Scapa Flow, and the Tabarka steamer became one such in Burra Sound. The 2,600 ton single-screw steamer lies upside down in 15m of water, not externally or easily recognisable as a ship, being heavily tidal swept and covered in kelp.

Descending green bright clear water in afternoon sunshine overlooking the majestic Hoy Hills, which lead to the famous Old Man of Hoy, a kelp covered "rock" appeared around the base of which many girders lay. This is no rock but the wreck itself, and it's important to descend quickly in the short slack window available. We'd been lined up like demented lemmings as the whole dive party went in at once on a negative entry, all divers carrying at least one delayed DMB and reel. As entry and descent is very quick, locating your buddy is paramount. Wreck entrance was through a rubble filled blast hole, one of only a few, and at its stern. These are covered in many colourful filter feeders and the route started with the wreck on our right until we found the entrance. We'd tried several other holes but with two tanks and a camera these were impossible to get through and with sharp metal threatening to rupture hoses, it's not worth it. The skipper advises getting into the wreck within the first few minutes as slack windows can be short, usually around 20minutes.

A ruined transverse bulkhead leads to three boilers, plastered in colourful sagartia anemones with their scuttles at the top. Looking around the outer hull had many holes creating a cathedral of light. Even in the wreck pipefish can be seen and also seals may come in and play with divers - an added bonus! After 25minutes water movement was noticeable as we entered the next chamber (the engine room). This has some great photographic opportunities with crankshafts and pistons - all upside down. There is much pipework to negotiate and can be a squeeze, much of the walls completely covered in a rich colourful carpet of marine life.

Tidal current has increased after 30minutes making it more difficult to pass through the engine room chamber and to a hold area presumably nearing the stern. I know there is a prop shaft tunnel somewhere here, but all is dark metal above. Difficult to work out which way we are pointing as the hull to deck has disappeared leaving finger ribs dripping down, a similar although less magnificent view over the other side. A line of holes along the hull shows the current strength, with kelp flapping crazily. This area is a very good exit point, having at least 2.5m vertical clearance into an external field of small boulders. At 35minutes the current is very strong in this chamber so we hide behind bulkheads, whilst watching small marine weeds career through. Time to go!

Don't launch the SMB inside, but do get it ready and it's best if the buddy pair stays very close at this stage to avoid separation on egress. Ensure the line connected to the SMB is not going to snag on anything including diver's equipment. Check the exit area and 'jump'. At 38 minutes the current whipped us out and luckily a down current dropped us onto the clear smoothed pebble seabed, where we easily launched the SMB rather than mid-water. After launch we saw the SMB in the clear water struggle to the surface and we went into the water column very quickly. Only 15m deep, there was around 35m of line reeled out.

Currents after slack period has ended are very fickle and very strong, with a swirling disarray of different currents hurtling the divers along. Divers must be mindful of the other blockships as people have been known to 'hit' them, literally! As the one without the deployed SMB, I held onto my buddy's BCD finding at one time he was on an up current and my lower body half was subject to a down current! We were corkscrewed around, our air bubbles mirroring our movements and then they were forced downwards. At 8m we dropped to 15m and the seabed, before taking off back to 8m. This was exhilarating.

It is best to check air remaining and important to breathe normally, reeling in as much line as possible while ascending gradually. Reeling in the line can be difficult with the pull of currents, so there are many stops and starts. We passed an invisible current barrier at 6-8m which seemed to be holding us down, but then found upwellings, so much air was dumped. It's best to be slightly overweighted and the safety stop was made as best as possible - this is still important to make. Breaking the surface the boat was nearby and the surface water around us completely in turmoil, although the nearby seabirds didn't seem to care!

Exiting from unpredictable currents onto a boat ladder should be made with care and keeping hold of tag lines paramount. The boat is stopped and at the mercy of the currents whilst collecting divers, so it's important to get out quickly.

Tony Gilbert

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