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The Miraflores Lock with the lock chamber and lock gate foreground

The first day after we arrived in Panama City, we had organized a day trip locally. Our guide/ driver was Saul with R and E transfer. he plan was to visit the Canal, Casco Viejo, the old town, Amador Causeway and other local areas.

At 9 am sharp, Saul was waiting for us with our vehicle. By the time we left, it was around 9:30 am, since we were all tired after reaching Panama City late the prior night. He took us first to visit the Canal as there was a ship scheduled to transit around 10:30 am and e would have enough time to see how the Canal worked.

The isthmus of Panama connects the North and South American continents and separates the Caribbean Sea from the Pacific Ocean. Which meant that people trying to cross from the Atlantic side to the Pacific had to sail all the way down to South America and then up towards the north. It also meant people have to go around Africa to reach Asia.

Only 30 miles wide in some places, the thought of an interoceanic passage to connect the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean, has intrigued many since the 16th century. However, the mountain ranges that traverse this area, the dense tropical jungles, the heat and humidity combined with heavy annual rainfall and tropical diseases like malaria and yellow fever, created significant obstacles to a successful completion.

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Miraflores Visitor Center, Panama Canal

Ferdinand Lesseps (who constructed the Suez Canal) and his French team took over construction of the Canal in 1882. However, for reasons mentioned above, the French were unsuccessful and the project had to aborted as the company went bankrupt. Coincidentally, the US was attempting to build a similar pathway in Nicaragua, a project that had to be stopped because of huge losses in the US stock market and a lack of funding.

The French canal construction company eventually sold the rights to build the canal along with its equipment to the US for 40 million USD. After Panama seceded from Colombia in 1903, the US entered into a treaty with Panama whereby a six-mile tract of land was leased for canal building in exchange for financial gain.

The US was able to successfully complete the Canal project in 10 years and the first ship transited the canal in 1914. It is said that the amount of material recovered during the dredging process could have built 63 Egyptian Pyramids equal to the Great Pyramid!

The Canal is 50 miles long and it takes a ship about 8-10 hours to transit. The Canal has been able to reduce transit for ships by about 9300 miles for ships traveling between the two US coasts and by about 2300 miles for ships from Europe to East Asia. This means ships are able to save about 2-3 weeks in transit-time overall.

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Panama Canal waterway

The Pacific Ocean is at a little higher elevation than the Atlantic. However, the interposed Gatun Lake is located at 26 meters above sea level. The Canal works on a lock system (chambers with entry and exit points). Ships entering from the Atlantic Ocean go through a set of 3-chambered locks (Gatun Locks) that raise the ships by 26 meters (8 m, 8 m and 10 m) to reach the natural elevation of Gatun Lake. About 48 km later and towards the Pacific end, the ships are lowered one level at the Pedro Miguel Lock to reach the level of the Miraflores Lake. Further south, lowered twice in a two-chamber lock at the Miraflores Lock, at which time they reach the level of the Pacific Ocean and are able to proceed to their destination.

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Ship in distant lock when we first sighted it
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Ship raised by water in the lock (black hull of the ship now visible)

The locks are designed with valves that allow rapid flow of water from a higher chamber to the one below. Usually the valves remain closed. The dam of water in a chamber is held within by powerful lock gates. Once a ship approaches the first chamber, the valves of the upper chamber are opened, flooding the lowest chamber with water, via gravity, from Gatun lake. Once even with the sea level, the lock gates open, allowing the ship to enter the first chamber. This process is repeated two more times until the ship is raised to 26 meters above sea level. At the Pacific end, the process is reversed allowing the ship to be lowered to the sea level. Tug boats assist the ships during their entry and exit and while transiting through the Culebra Cut, the narrowest portion of the canal.

The ships transiting the Canal have to pay a toll at its entry. There are two sets of waterways with two sets of locks. Ships are allowed passage from the Atlantic end for 12 hours and from the Pacific end for the next 12 hours. A third set of locks have now been added under the Expansion project. These locks are wider and deeper allowing for larger ships to navigate through the waterways.

Over a million ships have transited the canal since its inauguration in 1914. Although the ships pay a high toll for the transit, the shortening of transit-time ensures savings for the shipping companies. A recent Neopanamax ship (one of the larger ships passing through the expanded canal) paid a toll to the tune of a $830,000 to transit!!

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Display at the Visitor Center Exhibition Hall

The Canal uses about 101,000 cubic feet of water to fill each chamber. On average, the Canal uses 52 million gallons of fresh water for each transit! With the expanded canals, they are able to recycle 60% of the water used per transit. In fact, one of our guides mentioned that every Panamanian consumes three times more water than the average New Yorker! The Canal employs about 10,000 Panamanians and works 365 days a year.

We visited the Miraflores Lock which was about a 30 min drive from our hotel. The Canal is open everyday from 8 am to 6 pm. Our tickets were included with the taxi services, so Saul obtained them for us. Once inside, we found the visitor center crowded. Apparently, a ship had just transited the locks and another was on its way. The one after would not be until 6 hours later, so we certainly didn’t want to miss the one in the canal.

Saul led us to the theater where we watched a movie about the Panama Canal origins,  construction etc. Once done, he led us onto the observation deck that opened onto the Canal. There were few people milling about and given the pleasant day, we had a great time watching the water fill the locks and follow the ship as it was slowly raised in the two lock chambers. It took nearly 30-40 mins before the ship was on level. Tug boats then pulled the ship forward in the waterway, as it headed towards the Pedro Miguel locks.

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Lock gates replica

After the ship left the area, we grabbed a bite of ice cream before heading down to the exhibition halls. I must say these halls were impressive. They detail the science, the design, the human emotion, the multinational efforts, the obstacles, the successes and failures, the genius behind the building of the Canal in a crisp and persuasive manner. There is a machine in the center of the museum that measures body water content based on age, sex and it was a big hit with the crowd. There is also a simulator cabin at the end of the exhibition hall replicating the command area of the ship. The kids enjoyed navigating “their” vessel through the Canal. We did not stop to eat at the restaurant in the visitor center. There was also a gift shop that we skipped.

For kids and adults alike, visiting the Panama Canal was worthwhile and rewarding. The Canal is a testament to the indomitable human will, to the ingenuity of the human mind, the perseverance of people of all nationalities that came to work. What I liked even better are the efforts being made to preserve the natural environment around the Canal in as much of its native state as possible. The Panamanians are proud of the Canal and deservedly so!

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Replica of ship used for dredging the Canal

Read more about the Panama Canal at its official website: http://www.pancanal.com/eng/index.html

This post on the Scientific American website has wonderful illustrations of this mega project.

Visit the Canal on your next trip to Panama!