Day 2 |
Oct 22, 2011

Transit of Panama Canal

By Christian Walter, Historian

Co-ordinates: 9° 01’ 54” N, 79° 38’ 07” W (at 12:31 p.m., Continental Divide)
Weather: slightly overcast, sunny
Air Temperature: 27,6° C
Pressure: 1005 hPa
Wind: 39 kph

According to yesterday’s briefing, our transit of the Panama Canal would begin at 05:30 a.m., and guests and staff alike had been told that “early to bed, early to rise” would increase the chances of seeing more than the 100 species of birds predicted for today.

It would give us more time, as well, to take in this unique experience of transiting the Panama Canal, as Silver Explorer would be one of the first ships during the morning- always a good time to watch for birds.

Two large ships were ahead of us, and a huge car-transporter followed us. The Silver Explorer was given the western set of locks to head into Gatun Lake, and step-by-step we were climbing the 85 feet we needed to be at the lake’s level.

The lines to guide the Silver Explorer through the locks were brought to us by rowboat, and connected to the “mules”, the locomotives now used instead of mules. It took slightly more than an hour to rise from the Atlantic to the Gatun Lake, which when it was “improved upon” for the Panama Canal, was the largest man-made lake in the world at 423 km².

While transiting the lake it was my turn to give the first lecture of our cruise. As the Panama Canal is a marvel of engineering I talked about “The Building of the Panama Canal”. History tells us that already in the early 16th century Spain had intended to build a canal, but for religious reasons the work never started –it was considered that since God had not created an opening between the North Sea (=Atlantic) and the South Sea (=Pacific) in Central America, man should not do so either! Instead a trail was built to cross the Isthmus, the “Camino Real” (Royal trail), wide enough to permit two mules to pass each other fully loaded.

When gold was found in California, two transcontinental railroads were being built: a railroad across the USA from coast to coast, and the “Golden Railroad” from Colon on the Caribbean side of Panama to Panama City on the Pacific side.

It was only in the late 19th century that the famous French engineer De Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal, proposed to build a canal at sea level. 10 years and almost 22.000 dead workers later, De Lesseps’ company went bankrupt and another French company took over. Eventually American interest in the canal saw the completion of the work between 1904 and 1914, cutting the distance to travel from New York to San Francisco from 14.000 miles to only 6.000 miles.

While we continued our way, a local guide gave a running commentary, and our naturalists were still on the lookout for birds (only 27 had been seen until noon) and crocodiles –of which three were seen!

At 12:31 p.m. we went under the Centennial Bridge and half an hour later we passed the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks, where we could see the work for the new locks that would permit even larger ships to pass.

Shortly after 3 p.m., with Panama City to our left in the background, we left the “Bridge of the Americas” behind us, dropped the pilot and were headed into the Pacific.

The smooth ride we had had so far now turned bumpier, but much earlier than expected we saw the Pearl Islands ahead of us.

Before we could anchor, Robin Aiello gave a snorkel briefing, and Sho, our EL (short for Expedition Leader), introduced the new guests to our Zodiac-operation and talked about tomorrow’s plan(s).

Having arrived at Contadora around 06 p.m. we could observe a colorful sunset behind the island, and the anchor was dropped at 06:10 p.m.

This gave us enough time to prepare for the Welcome Cocktail Party in calmer conditions than before…

During the party, I sat with one of our Canadian/German guests who had been on board the Silver Explorer in one of the ship’s former lives, when it was the World Discoverer.

Eventually Sho introduced Captain Adam Boscek, who in turn brought all the heads of department onto the stage. They all wished us a memorable voyage, and during our Welcome Dinner we talked about what we intended to do, or what we had done so far.

Today we certainly had experienced a very nice beginning of our voyage “Between Oceans”.