Exploring and Traversing
the Panama Canal

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The small country of Panama lies 9 degrees North of the Equator and divides North from South America. Panama’s current population is 2 ½ million and they mostly live in crowded Panama City. In addition to exporting produce Panama’s main income is derived from ships transit through their Canal.

Centuries ago mariners dreamed about a possible short cut between the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean that would reduce their journey by 8,000 miles and spare them from several months spent at sea. In 1875 the French, motivated by the potential of huge financial gain were the first to take up the challenge. Their plan was to build a 47 mile sea level canal across the Continental divide. It became evident that during the planning stage of their complex project, the French builder Ferdinand de Lessep, miscalculated the very hot tropical climate; the daily torrential downpours; massive and devastating mudslides; and digging through a thick forest canopy full of a large variety of indigenous poisonous snakes. Their large undertaking ultimately proved extremely expensive both financially and due to loss of more than 20,000 lives mostly due to Malaria and Yellow fever disease. After years of disastrous and slow headway, the French finally admitted defeat and withdrew from what had become an expensive and scandalous project of it’s time.

During this time the United States government was also looking at options of building a canal through Nicaragua, but after failure by the French, a French engineer, successfully lobbied the United States to purchase the remaining assets. In 1903 America’s President, Teddy Roosevelt negotiated a treaty and paid the Panamanian government $10,000,000 and offered an additional $250,000 yearly for the right to continue construction of the canal. 

Upon acceptance, Roosevelt appointed Chief Engineer, John Stevens, as his project manager and architect. After months of planning and designing, Stevens determined the only feasible way to construct a canal would be by utilizing various locks and the gravitational flow of water to raise and lower the ships across the Continental Divide. After all these years this simple lock system design still works flawlessly, and it's relatively inexpensive to maintain and operate. 

Over a century ago, Steven's design specifications of the locks, was that each bay would be 1000 feet long, by 110 feet wide and 82 feet in height. At that time, his design was considered to be massive and purposely planned way larger than any vessel built or sailing at that time.Today, In modern times and dating back to the 1900’s specifications of the locks, shipbuilders have been hampered, limited and restricted by those dimensions to ensure their ships are able to transit the canal.

The direction of travel through the canal, is actually from North to South or (inverse) from South to North depending on the ship's destination. On the North side sits the Atlantic Ocean and to the South the Pacific. When approached from the Atlantic side, Gatun locks is the first set of locks. This locks has two bays that sit side by side and they each have a total of three flights per bay. In each flight of the locks, the ship is raised 28 feet enabling them to reach Gatun Lake, which sit 84 feet above sea level. This means the locks can accommodate a total of six ship at almost the same time, while all  going in the same direction. After leaving the Gatun locks, and after a few hours of beautiful lush scenery, the ship will cross the middle set of locks named the Pedro Miguel Locks. And finally the third and final set of locks closest to the Pacific is the Miraflores locks. 


  • More than 61,000,000 pounds of dynamite was used to excavate the Panama Canal. 
  •  The first 47 mile canal crossing was made on September 26, 1913, and since then, the canal has had close to 1,000,000 crossings, each taking up to 10 hours to cross. 
  • The Canal operates 24 hours a day 365 days of the year and employs more than 7,500 full time  employees.
  • On December 31st 1999, President Jimmy Carter officially turned over control of the Canal to the Panamanian Government and they have  successfully continued the daily operation.

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