Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Day 7: The Panama Canal

Yikes! It's been a week. I could provide all sorts of excuses as to why, but I won't, so here we go! This is the day a lot (ok like 3) people have asked me about. I apologize up front for the long post, because it will be long.

The night before our canal crossing, we pulled into the harbor at Colon. I happened to be above deck and saw the beautiful parade of ships in the harbor, all waiting for their clearance to travel the same route we would. We also got a treat of a night view of Colon. (I'll refrain from any jokes, especially considering the other end of the canal is a place called "la boca", the only word in spanish my dad knows, and it means "the mouth".)

Here's the Indiana Jones GPS track! Click on it for the full Google Maps interactive map!

We got up early that morning, we picked up the pilot about 6a-6:30a and the entourage did some sort of an inspection of the ship. The ship pays toll before going through the canal, and the toll is based upon some formula of cargo area, passenger area, etc on the ship. How much do you think the toll was for our ship? Keep reading for the answer. :o)

Around 7a-7:30a we said goodbye to Colon, and started our trip through the canal. What exactly is the Panama Canal? Well I never much paid attention before now.

Canals are either sea level canals, or lock canals. Sea level canals means the level of the canal is the same from end to end. A lock canal is where a vessel is raised and lowered from end to end. The Panama Canal is made up of 3 locks at Gatun (ga-TOON), the 85ft high Gatun Lake, 1 lock at Pedro Miguel, the 54ft high Miraflores Lake, and 2 locks at Miraflores down into the Pacific Ocean near Panama City.

The French tried to first build a sea level canal in Panama in 1880, but failed. The rock was too difficult to blast, and disease made conditions extremely difficult to work with. As a result, they gave up. The US Army worked in the 1910s to help eradicate mosquitoes (and malaria) from the canal zone, which allowed them to dig the canal. Also, the army decided to build a few dams, creating two man-made lakes. This, along with the locks, would allow cargo ships to pass across the isthmus of Panama from one ocean to the other.

Here is a picture entering the Gatun Locks. You can make out the 3 steps which will raise the ship 85 feet. You can also see the 4 locomotives which steady the ship in the lock.

Through a compromise, the locks were built with a width of 33 meters, or about 108 feet wide. The Disney Magic has a beam (width) of 104 feet, which would leave just 2 feet of room on either side of the ship. Incredible!! To keep the ship steady, electric locomotives or "mules" are used on either side. Our large ship required 8 total, 4 on each side. The locomotives loosen or tighten their lines which keeps the ship in the lock. The locomotives do not pull the ship forward, as they only have about 13 horsepower engines pulling the lines. Captain Puckett said one locomotive actually tightened too far and was yanked off it's track and into the lock. Oops!

It took 7 years of rainwater to fill the man-made lakes, Gatun Lake and Miraflores Lake. If a lock malfunctioned and the lakes emptied, it would take approximately 7 years to refill. Additionally, each vessel requires 52 million gallons of water for each passage, 26 million going up, and 26 million going back down.

As a ship enters a lock, the door behind it closes, and 26 million gallons of water are pumped into the chamber. This raises the ship to the same level as the next lock chamber or lake level, allowing the ship to travel on through. The process of filling the lock with water takes about 8 minutes for each lock.

About 9:30am we passed through the Gatun Locks, and started the 20-mile or so trek through Gatun Lake. I headed back to the stateroom to copy off my pictures and grab some food. There were several ships anchored in Gatun Lake, waiting for clearance to complete their trip through the canal. The trip usually takes about 8-9 hours, but can take up to 3-4 days depending on traffic. The larger toll you pay, the higher priority you have to pass through. As we had an itinerary to keep, we had to make sure to get through as quick as possible!

My break was over as we passed through "the cut." Literally, the workers who created the Panama Canal had to cut down through the rock and even the continental divide in order to extend to the Pacific. You can tell there isn't a whole lot of clearance for a cruise ship and large container ship to pass each other!

It seemed we were rock stars. The whole trip. It was kinda weird at first, then kinda cool. People would pull out their cameras and take pictures of us! The red pickup truck drove along the canal road in the cut for several miles, honking, waving, taking pictures of us. It was all pretty neat.

The Panama Canal is filled with some really cool lighthouses! Here are a few I spotted. In the third picture, you can also make out the Panama Canal Railroad. The railroad transports containers from Colon to Panama City, in lieu of the ship actually making the voyage through the canal. They do this either because the ship is too large to fit (or post-panamax), or too expensive.

Part of the cut includes the continental divide, which is the watershed line of where rainwater empties. Here is a look at where that crosses the canal. If you click on the link and look closely, you can see there is actually a road on the side of this mound.

Not long after the continental divide, we crossed under the Centennial Bridge, built recently in 2004. It's quite a sight to see!

Our next event was passing through the Pedro Miguel lock. You can see a container ship following us in the background, along with the Centennial Bridge. I won't hotlink someone else's photo, but I want to include a link of a US Submarine that was in front of us. No idea what ship it was or anything. I didn't take the photo, I was on the back of the ship pretty much the whole day. In their photo, the submarine is passing through the Pedro Miguel lock as we approach it.

Only a mile after the Pedro Miguel lock is the Miraflores locks and the Panama Canal Visitors Center. The visitors center was packed with people! The ship blew the 'When You Wish Upon A Star' horn sound, Captain Mickey apparently made an appearance on deck, and the people went wild!

It's a long drop. Don't look down!

At last we lowered into the Pacific Ocean, sailing a few miles underneath the Bridge of the Americas, the first roadway link between North and South America. Cool! The photo on the right is part of the skyline of Panama City. Lots and lots of skyscrapers!

Whew! At last... the smell of the Pacific Ocean air. And by my watch time for another shower! Not only was it hot, it was steamy. Interestingly enough, the whole day through the canal, the sun appeared north of the ship. Being on the back of the ship, I was in the sun the whole day. Crazy!

Dinner this night was very special. We got to take out menus home with us. They were beautiful!! Also it was another lobster night. Each one of us ordered lobster, and Mario brought us an extra tail! Yes.... I ate that one too. Mmmm but it was so worth it!

My parents. Happy 30th Anniversary!

My grandpa ended up with some larger mouse ears. :o)


We ended the evening with the premier of The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, with an appearance by the prince himself. This photo was taken the previous night, they had a nice display announcing the movie!

Wow you actually read this far down the page! I'll keep my promise. Captain Thorn said our toll/tariff for crossing through the canal was $410,000. I heard a previous figure of around $200,000, but it had to be somewhere in there. Very very expensive!! I'm sure Mickey has a few "Disney Dollars" in his pocket to kick in. ;o)

If you're interested in more photos, I have a few more posted on my photo website, Stay tuned to the next few posts where we visit the exciting Mexican Riviera with stops in Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas, and Los Angeles at!


Bek said...

Holy cow, big post! A good read! You know what you should do? Sign up at and you can get a free 8x8 photo album and 400 prints, just pay for shipping. You should make a book of your trip! You can even customize the front! Too cool!

By the way, who on earth would want to vacation in a place called Colon?!

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you're continuing your tlog. My trip on the EB repo is growing closer and I'm having trouble getting psyched up for it. Reading this, however, has really lit a fire under me. I loved the pictures of your parents in the mickey ears. HOW CUTE! I guess I've decided to blog about my trip too, though I think I'll do it like you have and post once I get home, rather than using the notoriously slow ship connection. I'm looking forward to reading more! No pressure, but hopefully you're done with your tlog before I leave in a month.