Tuesday, January 12, 2010


The Panama Canal is amazing, it really is, especially when you think about the technology available when it was constructed. It’s being widened now, so that larger ships can pass through. The current locks are 110 feet wide and 1000 long, which means this cruise ship, and it’s a smallish one, is about 106 feet wide, and a little less than 1000 feet long.
Panama held a referendum of all its citizens to decide if the widening should take place. Apparently, of the money the canal makes from charging fees for ships passing through, a quarter goes to salaries (there are about 9000 people employed, a quarter goes to maintenance, a quarter to researching new technologies that can improve operations, and a quarter goes to government revenue to be used to benefit the people. About 30% voted against the changes, apparently out of concerns about environmental impact. So the work is underway, and is supposed to finish in 2014, which will mark 100 years since the Canal was inaugurated. And to assuage environmental concerns, new technology is being used so that the water used in the new bigger locks will be saved and reused.
Melissa and I went on a tour called Monkey Island Adventure while we were in Fuerte Amador. It was fun, we saw monkeys in the wild, howlers and white-faced capuchins. The capuchins are among the most intelligent monkeys, and are often seen in movies and other situations where trained monkeys are needed. If you’ve seen the movie Outbreak, the monkey is a white-faced capuchin. We stopped at the side of a river in the canal, where a family of capuchins observed us, posed so we could take pictures, and a couple jumped onto the boat to receive a piece of banana.
A river in the canal? There are three sets of locks in the Canal, and the rest is a wide waterway which in places widens to become a lake filled with islands. Much of the area is very beautiful, although the widening work is apparent in many places. Hills are being lowered, areas are cleared of all vegetation, and dredging, and is underway to place explosives to remove rock.
Some facts:
During the 34 year construction, which included a disastrous French first attempt and then a 10 year American involvement, the two countries spent $639 billion.
The Canal is 48 miles long and saves ships a distance of 7,872 miles. The average transit is 9 hours.
Container ships are charged $80 per container, and many of them have 3 or 4 thousand of them. Once the expansion is finished, ships will be able to have two and a half times bigger capacity.
Cruise ships are charged by the number of beds. I’m not sure of the fee per bed, but they pay fees approaching half a million dollars.
In 1928, a man names Richard Halliburton swam through the canal. He paid a toll of 36 cents.

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