The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal Featured Image

It was the first full day with all the new crew members on board Tara and everyone was fresh and excited for the trip ahead to New York. It was a relaxing start to the trip with a 12 hour delay before passing through the Panama Canal. Many swims were had in the sun, surrounded by the backdrop of Panama City’s impressive skyline and large liners and cargo ships which were also awaiting passage. 

Captain Martin soldiered through immigration procedures, Francois gathered the last of the scientific equipment and everyone had some time to get to know each other before our 6.30 pm departure.

By now the sun had set and we were making our way up to the entrance of the canal through the calm cool evening with hazy skies in the distance in all directions. After what seemed like a tight squeeze under an arch cable-stay bridge we had made it to the canal’s first gate at Miraflores. We manoeuvred behind another boat, which was significantly bigger than us, that was already in the canal section. The concrete canal walls, around 10 meters high, enclosed us on both sides. There were tracks along both sides of the canal where guiding trolley-like vehicles could move alongside the boats and from which canal workers helped guide and moor us. Bats swooped down continuously and flew close to the water’s surface, coming from and going in all directions, one even flew over Tara through the masts. Lightning graced the skies in every direction throughout the night. The flashes and bolts added to the gloomy surreal atmosphere.

The first set of big concrete gates started slowly but smoothly closing behind us, trapping us and the other boat, before meeting midway in the canal and connecting to form a seemingly unstoppable barrier. We had just officially left the Pacific Ocean and were about to start gaining height to match the water level of the lake in the middle of the canal.

Before long the water beneath us had risen about 10 meters. What were enclosing walls only a few minutes before were now 1 metre high walls and sat beneath the level of our deck. The front gates opened and the equal level of water on both sides mixed happily. We continued through the canal and this process repeated two more times. The last section was noticeably shorter in length, so as the water rose it was filled with unfriendly looking boils and swirls.

We continued through the canal and went under a very impressive suspension bridge. After eventually finding and mooring to a buoy in a clearing, just shy of the mid lake, almost halfway through the canal’s total length, we finished the night at around 12.30 am.

The next morning, we were greeted by a crocodile lazily swimming at the water’s surface about 20 metres from our boat and completely unconcerned by our presence there. After it said goodbye we made our way up through the lake, continuing through the canal. We passed by dense native jungle that had crept right to the water’s edge and many jungle covered islands, framed in moisture rich haze. It was crazy to think about all the different and exotic animals and critters which inhabited these jungles, some poisonous, some deadly, and all hidden from sight.

Massive cargo ships and liners that were also making their way through the otherwise serene natural landscape. They sped past, overshadowing us in what seemed like close proximity. When two were passing each other from opposite directions it looked a bit like a cargo showdown, from our skewed  perspective they looked like they were on course to hit head on but they managed to pass each other without any drama.

Eventually we made it to a riverside development and knew we were close to the next gate. We docked and waited for our turn before moving forward and taking our place in front of the closed concrete gate that peeped out only a metre or two above the water’s surface. A massive cargo boat was towed in behind us with the help of the guiding trolley-like vehicles on either side of the canal. We could see the gates slowing part to let the water flow through to the unseen space beyond. This gap would’ve been only around 30 cm but the water dropped fast and in only a few minutes it had dropped around 10 metres and the gates slowly opened completely to reveal the passageway to the next gate.

This process continued two more times as we continued to drop in height. After dropping water level through the third set of gates, they opened to reveal the official end of the canal and opened into the Caribbean Sea.

It was such an incredible experience to be going through the canal system that was built over 100 years ago and has provided thoroughfare for an incomprehensible number of vessels since. The process moved like well-rehearsed clockwork and we were now at Caribbean Sea level, we had just travelled through the Panama Canal, we had made it to the Atlantic Ocean.

Photograph: François Aurat / Tara Expeditions Foundation