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Published: June 10th 2019
After a hearty breakfast aboard the Discovery, we all boarded small dinghies and headed to the nearby shore, docking at the Gatun Yacht Club
. From there we got on a small van that drove us drove OVER the narrow lock (this road access is soon to be removed) to the Agua Clara Locks
, the location of the new rolling gates on the Atlantic side. The Only other way to get to Agua Clara is via ferry or draw bridge. This over-lock opportunity will end soon but it was a great opportunity for us to get a perfect view of the operations along this very narrow access “road”.
On January 19, 2015 eight mammoth gates, ranging in height from seven to nine stories were installed in the three concrete locking chambers. The locks were scheduled to open to commercial traffic in the spring of 2016. The Panama Canal expansion project
, also called the Third Set of Locks Project
, doubled the capacity of the Panama Canal by adding a new set of locks that would enable larger ships to pass through. These new lanes increased the width and depth to allow these huge “New Panamax” ships, which have a greater cargo capacity
and are about one and a half times larger than the previous sized ships. These new locks have water saving basins to reduce the volume of water that is needed in the lock operation, very smart! Both the old and new locks use gravity and valves. There is no pumping involved. The Panama Canal Expansion Visitor Center
provided a wonderful observation area where we found a position high above others giving us a better viewpoint above the crowds to witness these huge ships moving through the Rolling Gates Operation of the new canal. I found some of this operation a bit confusing so here is the information posted on the signs about the Rolling Gates Operation
: “The gates (are) remade of steel plates with a hollow interior and with rails and plates of the same material. There are two gates between chambers which open in parallel manner to allow the passage of vessels once the chambers have been filled or emptied. The rolling system is activated from a control house. Two cables located on the upper part of both sides of the gates and a rolling wagon in front of the lower part, allow them to open or close
simultaneously. The gates have two buoyancy chambers. One is used during regular operation of the locks, while the second one is used for maintenance and relocation purposes.”
Abdiel reminded us that the original idea of the gate design was from the brilliant Leonardo Da Vinci
back in the 1400s, and it was from that basic construct that the operation is now used in the canal. In fact these gates were built by an Italian subcontractor! The average weight of each of these new gates is 3,200 tons and its size varies from 2,100 to 4,200 tons. All gates are 57,60 meters long and 10.8 meters wide. These gates vary in height depending on their location. Again, rolling gates.
Approximately 14,000 ships travel through the canal each year. We watched an LNG vessel (like a bomb) go through the new locks. That gave me pause. Some pilots prefer the old lock with the mules pulling the ship by rope over a tugboat in the new lock that would require a more skilled pilot.
As in Costa Rica, there is no army in Panama so it is very important to protect the dam in Gatun but our guide Jose
told us there are “good guys and bad guys” who need the canal so even though there is a “twenty-four-seven” guarded protection of the canal, most of these groups realize it is more advantageous to keep the canal open and as a result, so far, there have been no threats.
We watched a movie about the history and construction of the new canal that provided more information to clarify the creation of the old and new of the canal for us. After the movie we went for a nature walk on the Tropical Trail
looking for the elusive sloth. One was seen but not by us. Instead I did see and heard a Howler Monkey and saw a Blue Morpho Butterfly flying about in the jungle brush. Reforestation for wildlife is important to Panama here which was very good news. The trail is a small walk adjacent to the locks so I was amazed that any wildlife would find that commercial habitat desirable. But then, we are encroaching.
Our bus returned over the lock of the old canal and back to the Gatun Yacht Club where our boat was waiting to take us back to the Discovery. On
the way I saw a Belted Kingfisher and a Spiny Tail or Black Iguana. Loving the wildlife here.
At 3PM, after a large lunch, several of us joined Abdiel in a small boat for a nature tour of Tiger Island
and the nearby islands. (I got lucky and hopped on the second nature boat tour with Jose from 4:30-6PM). On each of our excursions our little boat, carrying about 6 of us, motored us around the group of islands within sight of our ship, albeit a long way away. We meandered around little coves and each time our guide (Abdiel or Jose) found something, we stopped and pulled in to get a closer look.
must have a favorite tree hangout because on both occasions we went right to the same area to find them sleeping, stretching or slowly munching on leaves. Of course they don’t move much at all so finding them in the same place shouldn’t be a surprise. In other areas we had found monkeys traveling through the treetops and of course the birds could be just about anywhere which made our exploration more exciting in these once-mountain tops now islands on Lake Gatun.
Among the many sitings over the course of both boat tours that late afternoon were the Geoffrey Tamarind Monkey, Howler Monkeys
, a Spider Monkey, two Brown-throated Three Toed Sloths
(they have a black mask on their face and the male has a brown stripe). I could make out their long tails and the black mask but they were not easy to see. In the middle of the rainy season these guys can get green moss on their fur! The Two Toed Sloths were further away and not apparently sharing a habitat with the three-towed guys, but curious fact: they have the longer fur and can eat bird eggs in addition to leaves. Plus don’t bet on the Three-Towed sloth in a race, the Two-Towed sloth would always win. This Two Toed Sloth was eating the Cecropia tree leaves, the search for eggs must have tired him out. The Two Toed White Sloth is the one you will find in captivity. The elusive Jesus Christ Lizard, (or Common Basilick), and the Spiny Tailed Iguana sat and watched us from their perches on logs until cameras came out and they decided to disappear.
Magnificent Frigate Birds and Red Crowned Lord
Parrots flew overhead while the Mangrove Warbler, Great Egrets, Southern Lapwing, Tropical Kingbird, Rusty Margin Flycatcher, Social Margin Flycatcher, White Ringed Flycatcher, Bare Crowned Tiger heron, Grey Hooded Wood Rail, Yellow Crowned Parrot, Tropical Mockingbird, Yellow Backed Oriole, Great Kiskadee, White Ringed Flycatcher, Boat Billed Kiskadee, Giant Cowbirds, Greater Ani, Pale Vented Pigeon, Chestnut Headed Oropendola, Brown Pelican, Neo-tropic Cormorants, Snail Kite, Osprey, Mangrove Swallows, Blue Morpho Butterfly, Yellow Orbed Spider, Green Spiders, Purple Galinule, Great Necked Woodrail, Red Crowned Woodpecker, and Ruddy Ground Doves populated the trees and jungle. Phew. What fun!
We boated past the Membrillo Tree that has edible fruit for monkeys and other animals in the jungle. We also saw the Annatto, a small tree or tall shrub whose seed is used for seasoning and food coloring. Tabebuia trees (called Flowering Oak by our guides) in pink, yellow and white decorated the edges of the islands.
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