The other day, we went and saw the Panama Canal. In all honesty, I didn’t know anything about the Canal before going there. The Panama Canal, is 80 km (50 miles) of water that connects the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. Part of the Canal consists of Gatun Lake, which is 26 meters above sea level. Therefore, the Canal uses a system of locks, or gates that enclose a ship. Once in a lock, water is filled and raises the ships to a higher elevation. It contintues through a series of locks until it is the elevation of Gatun Lake. Then it is lowered again through the same process and exits on the other side. Boats use their own propulsion, but when passing through the locks, electric locomotives align and keep them in position. Commercial ships pay an average of $46,000 USD each to pass, and 38-43 do so daily. It requires about 24 hours for a ship to pass through the Canal (this includes transit time and docking). On average, Panama’s watershed uses 58% of available water for lockages, 36% to produce electricity, and 6% for human consumption. In 2003, ships paid around $666 million in tolls. Last year, 20% of ships that wanted to use the Canal were turned away because it was being used at full capacity.
We were there to see two ships pass through, which was actually a pretty slow process. The locks are filled at a rate of 1 meter a minute, and it was pretty hot standing out there in the Panamanian sun to see ships pass. For $100-$150, you can actually be on a boat and experience the whole process yourself. We passed on that, but paid $8 to enter. (Click on pictures below to enlarge.)