Modern Day Marvel of the Panama Canal

Combining history with witnessing an incredible feat of engineering, a journey passing through the famed Panama Canal is not to be missed.


5 min read

The equatorial sun sets beyond the tree line, projecting crimson bursts into the dappled sky. At this latitude, the sun plummets quickly and the vivid show is over in an instant.

Here on Panama’s Gatun Lake, the vast man-made sea that floods the low-lying valleys on the Isthmus of Darien. But my view is suddenly obscured by the overwhelming bulk of a giant container vessel passing in the opposite direction and the evening splendour is unceremoniously blotted out.

Gatun Lake, formed by a dam to create the Panama Canal, holds back five cubic kilometres of water. Photo: Shutterstock.

Map of the Panama Canal. Industrial encyclopaedia E.O. Lami - 1875. Photo: Shutterstock.

Map of the Panama Canal. Industrial encyclopaedia E.O. Lami - 1875. Photo: Shutterstock.

When this giant dam – which forms a major part of the Panama Canal – was completed in 1913, it held back the world’s largest artificial lake and was the biggest dam ever constructed. To give you some idea, the 820-metre-wide dam wall holds back five cubic kilometres of water. That’s about ten times the size of Sydney Harbour. The water drives hydroelectric generators that power everything needed to fill the gigantic locks at either end of the canal.

The filling of Gatun Lake signalled the final chapter in the Panama Canal’s controversial creation – an agonising 30-year saga first initiated by a French consortium headed by the famed Ferdinand de Lesseps. Fresh from his spectacular success developing the Suez Canal, de Lesseps attracted huge sums of money from investors for the project. His luck did not hold. In 1889 his company collapsed amid corruption scandals, engineering miscalculations and a staggering loss of life among workers due to a malaria and yellow fever epidemic.

Construction of the Panama Canal
A view of the Panama Canal from a cruise ship. Photo: Shutterstock.

A view of the Panama Canal from a cruise ship. Photo: Shutterstock.

In 1904, ten years after the death of de Lesseps, the beleaguered scheme was picked up by the United States of America. After buying out the French company in a fire sale, control was handed over to the US Army. President Theodore Roosevelt fully understood the strategic and economic importance of a canal that chopped a whopping 13,000 kilometres off the journey between New York and San Francisco.

Then there was the added benefit of negating the need for the treacherous passage via Cape Horn at the bottom of South America. After much controversy over the expense and hardships suffered, the Panama Canal’s first ship completed the journey between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in 1914, just before the outbreak of World War I.

Now, the 10-hour, 80-kilometre transit through three massive locks is a bucket list favourite for serious cruisers. For more than a century, the width of ships has been restricted by the width of the canal, and only recently has the famous waterway been expanded to cope with larger vessels. However, smaller ships like those operated by Hurtigruten Expeditions offer no challenge to the massive mechanisms that admit 14,000 vessels every year.

Passing through the giant locks
Travelling through this famous stretch of water is only for serious cruisers.

Travelling through this famous stretch of water is only for serious cruisers.

Passing through the giant locks earns a gold medal for world travellers. I watch on enthralled as tiny locomotives, called mules, hitch to the ship with massive ropes and guide it through the triple tiers at Miraflores, the Pacific Ocean end that is adjacent to Panama City.

With each opening and closing of the 600-tonne gates, 101,000 cubic metres of water is pumped in and out, raising or lowering vessels nearly 20 metres as they enter or exit. Earlier, I explored the visitor centre that overlooks the entire complex, before joining onlookers on the large balconies to watch in amazement as the massive vessels inch through the barriers. Inside are rooms filled with models and diagrams explaining the operation and history of the engineering marvel.

The enormity of this project has earned it the title as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

Passenger ships make up just a small fraction of the canal traffic, but it’s an expensive exercise for any watercraft, with the average toll around US$60,000. The highest fee ever paid was for a massive cruise ship at US$375,600 in 2010, while the cheapest transit cost 36 cents, paid by travel writer and adventurer Richard Halliburton who swam the canal over the space of a week in 1928.

As the last embers of sunset smoulder on the distant horizon, I can’t help but contemplate the enormity of this project – now deemed one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World – and the engineers who planned it with slide rules and pencils, as well as the thousands who gave their lives to make it a reality.

Experience this modern-day marvel aboard the world's first hybrid-powered ships.