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Panama Canal

Photo: Eric Wienke, Canal

Panama – Built across the Isthmus of Panama, the Panama Canal is 80 kilometers (50 miles) long and extends from the city of Colon on the Caribbean Sea to Panama City on the Pacific Ocean.

Some of the best bird watching in the hemisphere occurs in the former Canal Zone along Pipeline Road in Soberania National Park outside Panama City and Achiote Road near the San Lorenzo Protected Area by the Atlantic entrance to the canal. Another former Canal Zone area well worth a visit is world-famous Barro Colorado Island used for in-depth tropical investigations by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

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Environmental Status
Unfortunately, the entire watershed has been degraded by encroaching urbanization. According to William Friar, author of Adventures in Nature: Panama, the concern is that there won’t be enough fresh drinking water.

Sites of Interest
Barro Colorado Island
– BCI is home to the Barro Colorado Nature Monument, used by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. It was declared a protected area in 1923. The island was actually a hill until 1914 when the Chagres River was dammed and the area became Gatun Lake. The island is now home to 480 species of trees, 384 bird species and 30 species of frogs. There is an interpretive trail for day visitors.

Gaillard (Culebra) Cut
– This site is where the canal was dug through the rocky spine of the Continental Divide. The locks here are not open to the public but there is a nearby rest stop that provides a scenic view.

Miraflores Locks
– These locks stand at the Pacific entrance to the canal and permit raising and lowering the ships 16.5 meters (54 feet). Of the canal’s three sets of locks, this location is closest to Panama City and provides an observation platform and topographic model. Open from 8am to 5pm daily.

San Lorenzo Protected Area
– Declared a protected area when the canal was turned over to Panama, this park is part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, one of only 25 Conservation International hotspots worldwide for its biodiversity and high level of endemism. It is also home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Fort San Lorenzo, which along with nearby its sister site of Portobelo, protected the trade route for the 60% of all New World treasure that traveled from South America to Spain. The fort offers spectacular views over the Chagres River. Along the way to the fort, you can visit the Gatun Locks, Gatun Dam (water supply for canal operations), the last visible remains of the French Canal and a former U.S. Army base, Fort Sherman, which protected the Atlantic entrance to the canal. Open 8 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily.

In 1513 Spanish explorer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa trekked across the Isthmus of Panama and saw the Pacific Ocean. The Spanish were quick to suggest building a canal across the Isthmus, but little transpired until the end of 19th century.

In 1869 the Suez Canal opened. The brainchild of Frenchman Ferdinand de Lessep, he broached the idea of a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. Treaties were negotiated with Colombia.

Spurred on by trade demands, in 1883 the construction of the canal was led by a private French company. Within six years, landslides, malaria, yellow fever and cost overruns killed the effort. Nearly 20,000 workers had died. In 1904 U.S.President Roosevelt appointed a Isthmanian Canal Commission and dispatched 1,800 workers.

Operations were again stalled by tropical diseases, though this was resolved when a US. medical team demonstrated that yellow fever and malaria are spread by mosquitoes. Swamps were drained, insecticide sprayed, screens installed.

Between 1904 and 1914, the United States spent $352 million to build the canal. Public money — unlike the private French effort — backed the project. The canal opened six months early and below the 1907 cost estimates, though this second phase cost an additional 5,000 lives. On December 31, 1999 the Panamanians took control over operations as stipulated in the 1979 Panama Canal Treaty.

Facts and Trivia (needs to be double checked!)
A typical canal transit uses 52 million gallons (197 million liters) of fresh water. A transit could be one large ship or several small ships.

Grain is the most common cargo shipped through the canal.

The gravity-fed lock system pours fresh water through each successive set of locks.

The average ship spends 24 hours in Panama Canal waters. This includes the waiting time. The average transit lasts 8 to 10 hours.

More than 12,500 transits are made in the Canal each year. More than 40% involve travel between the east coast of the United States and Asia.

Today’s huge tankers are too large for the locks — though most can’t fit in any port. Instead, oil is off-loaded and piped across the isthmus.

The canal is wide enough to accommodate 93% of all seagoing vessels.

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Panama Canal



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