We were awake at 3:35 AM today, as we knew we would be entering the Panama Canal about 5:00 AM and didn't want to miss any of it. The photos we took at 4:00 AM of the 18 ships waiting in the harbour for their turn to go thru the canal are pretty shaky! It was still the middle of the night, good grief! What do you expect?
But this one taken as we slowly approached the first group of locks is reasonably OK. Notice how the banks of the canal leading into the first locks are illuminated for miles on both sides. Pretty cool, eh?
As the pre-dawn light increased, so did the number of passengers who jostled for front rail positions to see this momentous occasion.
While everyone on our ship is snapping photos of the locks, Shirley is excited about the little light house on the side and a couple of water tanks on the horizon. Slowly but surely daylight is breaking!
We can now see that there are big ships in both the left and right locks ahead of us, but we are going to use the right side locks today.
We can see now that the ship on the left is moving forward from the first lock into the second one... and that the ship on the right is already in the second lock. The water is now draining out of the right hand first lock so that we can enter it.
Man is this exciting! The ship on the left is now into the second lock and the doors are about to close. On the right the ship is now completely into the third lock and the doors are starting to close.
Now the locks are closed on both left and right side and water is rushing in. It takes 52 million gallons to fill a lock and it takes about 8 minutes to flow into place.
As the ships on both sides are rising, the locks have opened for us and we are moving forward into our first lock. Hang on! Now it is our turn!
As we move forward into our lock we notice that there is not even a foot of air on each side between our ship and the walls. We just fit. Notice the ship on the left, the NYK Diana, is now advancing forward into their third lock position.
As we move forward into the second lock, the ship ahead of us is now moving out of lock three into Gatun Lake.
While we are advancing into the second lock, as we look back we see the lock gates opening and another ship coming up into the first lock in the other lane. Notice how a tug is pushing the ship into position against the center wall.
It is interesting to see how the ships are guided thru the canal locks with electric mules. These are small locomotives that run on a special train track that has cogs to control the mule's advancement and eliminate slippage. Also notice the crane on the tracks that they use to help connect the cables between the center of the ship to the mules on each side. The ships move thru the locks partly with their power and partly by being pulled by the mules.
These newer mules replaced the original mules that were used when the canal was first opened. With the advancements in technology, the Japanese built all new mules and they phased out the old ones.
Meanwhile, another ship is lining up to enter the lock behind us as soon as we move along. It is interesting to see two tug boats pushing the ship into position.
Shirley didn't want to bring her Nikon D200 on the cruise, but she has been less than happy using her baby Nikon. The pictures are not bad, but it is so slow.
We had to do a little bit of running back and forth on the boat to see it all. While we were busy taking pictures at the back of the ship, at the front the NYK Diana had moved out of the last lock into Gatun Lake... and we were advancing into the final lock, soon to be in the lake as well.
It was good to see the side of the NYK Diana after looking at only the back of her for the past several hours.
Now we are in the last lock ready to also go into Gatun Lake.
Gatun Lake is a large artificial lake created between 1907 and 1913 by building Gatun Dam across the Charges River. When first built, it was the largest man-made lake in the world, and the dam was the largest earth dam.
Usually lighthouses are on a rocky point, but this one baffled me. Maybe it was built to guide ships coming towards the Atlantic so they could easily find the Gatun locks. Besides, it is a lighthouse and Shirley always takes pictures of lighthouses! They don't have to make sense.
As our ship cleared the last lock into the lake, to the left we could see fresh earth being moved. Then the captain came on the loud speaker and told us that another set of locks were under construction.
These new locks are designed to accommodate today's super tankers and are scheduled for completion by 2014... 100 years after the original Panama Canal opened.
As we look back on the locks we have just gone thru, we see the ships following us are making progress. Every day about 38 ships pass thru this canal... and that adds up to about 14,000 ships annually.
It only takes a minute for this short animated film to explain how the water is managed to get the ships thru the locks. Check it out; it works the same in any language.