Welcome to Gatun Lake on the Panama Canal. This lake is about 163 square miles in area... and when first made it was the largest man-made lake in the world. This lake makes up over 20.3 miles of the 51 mile Panama Canal.
Trivia: The largest manmade lake today is Lake Volta in Ghana, West Africa... it is a whopping 3275 square miles in size, which is about 20 times larger than Gatun Lake. This hydro electric dam, built between 1961 and 1965, was constructed primarily to supply power for the Volta Aluminum Company, but the rest of Ghana also benefits.
This is the spillway at the top of the dam at Chagres River. Gatun Lake is the only source of water required to fill the locks. Each time a lock is emptied 52 million gallons is lost into the ocean and since up to 40 ships pass thru daily, you can see lots and lots of water has to be replaced for the next days use in the locks.
Several times we saw "pilot" boats pull up alongside our ship and between 1 to 3 pilots jump off onto our boat. Apparently our captain does not pilot the ship thru the locks... 3 guys come aboard to pilot the boat thru the canal. When they get thru the first set of locks a boat comes and they jump off onto it.
It happens to be one of the highest paying jobs in this part of the country. Our taxi driver told us that a Panama Canal pilot makes between $12-18,000 a month and it takes up to 10 years to learn the ropes.
In preparation for the passage of ships thru this lake, considerable excavation was required to guarantee the proper width and depth of channel. When the lake was finally flooded there would have to be adequate depth in the canal. You can see many places where this "stepped" excavation appears as we passed thru the lake.
Of course we were always meeting ship traffic as we passed along the way, but this tanker won the prize for being the most colorful, even though it was by no means the largest.
When we met this freighter it seemed like he was really hauling buns... but maybe it just seemed faster since we were not exactly standing still either.
There are countless tug boats working in the canal always ready to lend a hand to any ship that may need a little push or pull.
This little tour boat with tourists looked a little out of place... kind of like children playing in heavy traffic! Can you see how muddy the water appears? There is so much new construction happening in the canal that we saw an awful lot of murky, brown water.
We saw four of these dredging platforms... but they were not working at the time. What these rigs do is dredge the mud off the canal bottom and load it on to barges to take it away.
This picture shows the drilling and blasting rigs working on the hillside to widen the canal for the new locks opening in 2014. You would not believe the chatter in the dining room when Shirley took this photo. Some elderly English ladies were saying, "They should not allow ships to be using the canal when they are blasting! This is far too dangerous for us to be here now!" Meanwhile Shirley is thinking, "Bring it on! I want to get a picture of good blast!"
This Centennial Bridge is another amazing engineering feat. Constructed between 2002 and 2004 it has a total span of 3451 feet. The main span is 1050 feet and has 282 feet clearance above the canal so all ships can easily pass under. The two towers are 604 feet high and the deck accommodates six lanes of traffic. The west tower of the bridge was built 165 feet inland to allow for the future widening of the canal. Isn't it wonderful to see people are thinking ahead?
Isn't this a pretty design? I love to see engineering that is more than just functional... this is an absolutely beautiful work of art!
This is why I want to have a long lens with my Nikon D300 next time we do the Panama Canal. I just have my I-phone with me this trip and I think it takes amazing photos, but feel limited to the wide angle scenic shots.
After 2014 when the next locks are opened for the super tankers, we just may be tempted to take this trip again.
We didn't have the opportunity to travel under this bridge at night, but could you image how wonderful it would have been to be there to take this awesome shot with the ships passing under?
There is another bigger story here than this wonderful bridge... and that is the enormous feat of excavating the Gaillard Cut, which is 7.8 miles long and extends from the Pedro Miguel Locks on the Pacific side to the Chagres River arm of Lake Gatun. This is the Great Divide part.
You can see the excavation steps in the sides of the canal. What you don't see is all the material that was removed between those two walls of the canal for almost 8 miles. The French removed 18 million cubic yards in the Gaillard Cut before going bust... and then the US took out another 100 million cubic yards to complete it, 23 million cubic yards of which was unplanned, brought into the cut by landslides.
We were doing lunch when our ship approached the Pedro Miguel Locks... hence the photo thru the window in the Horizon Court Buffet. Only one lock here. After the Gatun Locks this is no biggie.
When our ship is fully into the lock and the gates close behind us, the water is then removed from the lock until we are as low as the Miraflores Lake. See it swirling outside the locks as it exits?
Then the gates in front of us open and we cruise out into the Miraflores Lake. It all happened so fast we hardly felt it!
Looking back on the single Pedro Miguel Locks that we just exited, the gates are closing and we can also see in the distance the Centennial Bridge.