The Panama Canal

Miraflores Lock - note the water levels that must be equalized

Miraflores Lock – note the water levels that must be equalized

On the morning of January 3, we went to see the Canal.  Panama has built a wonderful museum with a 4th floor balcony right over the Miraflores locks.  So we went up there first because a huge car carrier was transiting.  The ships don’t go through the locks under their

Electric Donkeys waiting for a ship

Electric Donkeys waiting for a ship

own power–they are pulled by four to eight electric donkeys.  That way no matter how large they are, they don’t bump the sides.  So this car carrier (huge block four or five stories high with no windows except in the tiny pilot house at the top) stops against the even larger rear gates of the lock.  Water is evacuated from the lock in front of the ship until the two boxes of water are at the same level.  The electric donkeys pull the ship into the lock.  Then a tiny, but powerful tugboat pushes it until it is completely within the lock and the gates behind the ship close. Immediately water balloons from

In the lock and rising

In the lock and rising

below and the ship rises as if on an elevator.  On the Pacific side there are three locks:  Pedro Miguel has two names but a single lock; Miraflores has two locks right next to each other, so it’s the most interesting to watch.  What you don’t see the first time, you catch on the second.  The ship is pulled to the rear gate and the level in the second lock rises until it is  the same as the level of the lake beyond.  Then the gates open, the electric donkeys go back to their starting place to wait for the

Through the locks and into the lake

Through the locks and into the lake

next ship, and the car carrier steams off toward the Atlantic locks.  I’d always heard that the levels of the two oceans were different and that’s why they had to have locks.  But now I have learned that the locks raise the ship on the entrance side so that it can go over the Continental Divide, which passes through the mountain spine of Panama, and then the ship is lowered the same distance on the other end, so that it arrives at sea level again.  Makes more sense that way, doesn’t it?    Oh, I was talking about how the money from the Canal is distributed, but you probably wonder how it is earned.  Ships are charged according to their water displacement.  The average charge is $100,000 per ship with the largest amount ever charged so far being over $400,000 and the smallest amount charged being .39.  Thirty-nine cents???  Yes, Richard Halliburton swam through the canal, and based on his displacement of water, was charged 39 cents. $100,000 sounds like a lot, but is apparently only one-third or so the cost of sailing that ship around South America.

After that tour we had lunch at a lovely natural food place on the CdS property called Pan y Canela (Bread and Cinnamon).  I had neither, but I had a delicious tuna salad with a glass of passionfruit juice.  Passionfruit is becoming a theme of this trip. We’ve had multiple servings of ice cream, drink it with almost every meal, and bought some frozen concentrate to bring home.

In the afternoon we went to visit an NGO that is part of the CdS.  CATHALAC (Center for the Study of the Humid Tropics in Latin America and the Caribbean) focuses on water and the effects of climate change on human beings.  They have just published an atlas of Latin America and the Caribbean that concentrates on water and the changes expected in the near future. After we all admired the volume, CATHALAC presented each member of the board of Global Stewards Institute (including David) with a copy. Definitely worth its weight on the plane back.  We had two speakers; the first talked about climate change in the Canal Zone and the second about the rural areas of Panama.  Certain models of the effect of climate change suggest that the Canal zone will become drier than it is now. That would change the operation of the Canal, since the Canal needs immense amounts of water to operate the locks that enable ships to travel over the Continental Divide.  In fact, the new Third Canal has been designed to re-use water in the locks rather than letting it escape into the ocean at either end. If rainfall in the Canal area lessens, there could be real issues over the economic viability of the Canal.

Our second speaker at CATHALAC, a man of Indian ancestry, highlighted the effect of  climate change on the marginalized indigenous people of Panama.  They face a more serious problem: recently rains in areas outside the Canal watershed have increased tremendously. The flooding and landslides in the farming areas cause serious damage to the farming areas and to people living at the subsistance level.  Excessive rainfall over the past several years has led to landslides and the destruction of homes and fields, causing many deaths. Studies suggest that more water storage dams should be built, but they raise their own environmental questions.  He left us all with a lot to think about because he presented problems and questions that had no simple answers for the future of Panama.

In the evening back at the hotel we saw a documentary that had appeared on the History Channel about the building of the Canal.   It was amazingly detailed with photos of the original workers and their families as well as the supervisors.  I felt as though I had actually been in Panama for all those years.  So all my wishes were satisfied except I wanted to actually travel through the Canal.

The GSI trip included a volunteer day painting a Panamanian school, so we seized our chance to go on the Canal.  We went by bus up to the middle of the Canal at Gamboa.

Our boat for the trip down the Canal to the Pacific

Our boat for the trip down the Canal to the Pacific

There we boarded a tour boat and started back down the Canal toward the Pacific. So first we went out of the lake and into the Culebra (Snake) Cut.  It’s pretty narrow, but since we were in a small boat (3 decks–two inside and one out) we shared the route with a catamaran from Canada and a sailboat from Panama.  And since our boat was Panamanian-owned, we didn’t have to pay the full price.  Good thing!  So we reached the area where they’ve widened the Culebra Cut and we could see the new work across the cofferdam.  I guess when they’re finished, they’ll route ships through that detour and drain the old Cut, since they have to make it also 60 feet deeper.  It’s a massive work especially because they can’t close the Canal to do it.  Then the first lock: Pedro Miguel.  We slid up past the gates and into the lock and were tied to the walls with long slack ropes.  We had to wait a bit for the catamaran,

Tied to the sides of the lock

Tied to the sides of the lock

but when we were all in, the gates closed behind us.  So in the lock and in back of us, the water was up to the top

David

David

of the gates and in front of us, the water was at the

The water level begins to drop

The water level begins to drop

3/4 down

3/4 down

bottom of the gates.  As soon as the gates closed, the water began to drain out–it was like riding in a down elevator.  It only takes 8 minutes to empty a lock, so you can imagine how quickly we went down.  When we’d gotten to the lower level, the front gates opened and we sailed out.

The gates begin to open

The gates begin to open

 

And through the gates.

And through the gates

 

Same thing on the second (Miraflores 2) and third (Miraflores 1) and then we were in the Pacific Ocean again.  The boat dropped us off at a causeway that went over a group of

islands and then back to the mainland. We heard that the causeway helps protect the city beaches and gives

Handicraft Market - a new Government project

Handicraft Market – a new Government project

new economic life to the islands, and was built using the dirt and rock taken out of the new canal diggings. We decided to walk back a bit to the next island where there was a Handicraft Market that we’d seen on the way in.  It was worth the walk, but, because of the heat, we stopped for (you guessed it) passionfruit ice cream before we went into the Market.  We didn’t buy much, but we saw what was available and decided what we would buy if we could get the prices down a bit.  Then we grabbed a taxi back to the hotel for a dinner at the Irish pub next door and a good night’s sleep.

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