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Day 10 - September 10, 2008 - Panama Canal Crossing, Republic of Panama

By Christian Walter

Noon Position: 9 degrees 06 minutes North, 079 degrees 41,2 minutes West

Having experienced the thunderstorm and lightning at Willy Dupe yesterday afternoon, hopes were high, but fingers still had been crossed to have improved weather for today’s crossing of the Panama Canal. The Prince Albert II arrived at Limon Bay, the northern entrance to the canal, close to 6 o’clock. Quite a few ships were awaiting their allotted time-slots, both on the open sea, as well as in the vicinity of Colon’s harbour. Since the canal authorities had assured us of a daytime transit at an early hour, Suzanna had warned us that she would not wake us by the PA system bell.

Despite the early hour, a few guests were up and scanned the canal for any birds, reptiles or mammals from the open decks. Hardly inside the harbour area, dolphins were already spotted! Nice cloud formations were building up on the western side of the entrance, while burning grass covered Colon under a cloud of smoke. 

Advancing towards the first set of locks to get to Lake Gatun, we noticed two giant container ships ahead of us. A Chinese ship had entered “our” lock system, while the Ever Dainty was about to enter the second set of locks. The Dainty wasn’t so delicate at all - following, and eventually overtaking it during the transit through the locks, we could see the tremendous amount of scratches the entrance and passage through the lock-chambers had produced on the side of the ship. While we advanced our new travel companions, Luis and “Panama Pete” helped out with explanations on the open decks, scanning the lush vegetation on both sides of the canal together with Brent for any (unusual) birdlife, or crocodiles – which were seen in due time, both ashore on the beaches, as well as swimming in the canal!

From the bridge, commentaries were given by our canal-guide, and a canal pilot was helping Captain Roche to safely navigate the length of the canal. Although ships had entered Lake Gatun ahead of us, they had either anchored (as requested by the authorities) or took the secondary channel for smaller ships, known as the “Banana Channel”. The Prince Albert II was given the signal to be the first ship on the “downhill” part, and we only had to wait for the last two ships from the Pacific side to pass Gamboa, the site of the maintenance headquarter for the Canal, to be in position at 12 o’clock.

To maximize the use of the canal, which at its narrowest part can only have one ship at a time, it had been decided to have ships coming up from the Pacific side until noon, while the rest of the day ships would be heading towards the Pacific side from Gamboa. At Gamboa we could also see “Hercules” and “Titan”, two cranes on barges, capable of lifting 250 long tons in the case of “Hercules” (a German crane dating back to the very beginning of the Canal), and 350 long tons in the case of the more modern American crane. Both cranes are operational, with “Hercules” basically on stand-by, in case “Titan” has a problem. For the next 12.6 km, the Gaillard or Culebra Cut, the most challenging part of the original construction, gave us the opportunity to have a quick lunch – today featuring a “Fruehschoppen”, a kind of Bavarian brunch - before we reached the first of the two bridges that cross the canal in a permanent way; unlike the swing-bridges at the Gatun, Pedro Miguel, and Miraflores locks.

Once we had crossed the Miraflores Lake and Miraflores locks, we were effectively in the Pacific Ocean. Passing under the “Bridge of the Americas” – which Val, our Australian photographer immediately recognized as a copy of the Sydney Harbour Bridge - we had good views of Panama City on our port side. We had descended 26 meters from Gatun Lake to the Pacific - and it did not do its name any justice! While we had had smooth rides so far, the ship started to move, as soon as we were in open waters. This still could not stop the adventurous from partaking in the Ice Cream Social, held on the open deck, nor our naturalist from spotting wildlife. Promptly, Brent announced, “Whales to starboard”. The Prince Albert II was turned towards where the mammals had been seen, but … nothing! I dryly remarked: “You have to be closer to England to see Wales”, when effectively their blow was spotted by several fellow travelers.

Naturally, Humpbacks and their migration had to be featured during recap that evening, but before that could happen, Suzanna gave an introduction on Puerto Quetzal’s excursion, and Brent was able to tell us more about “Frigate Birds and Boobies”, talking about the iconic seabirds we had already encountered at many sites, but were now introduced to properly. JJ talked about the humpbacks, I presented “serious” pictures of the canal transit and described their importance, and guests enjoyed a new edition of the “International Enquirer”. Suzanna started her briefing of Isla Coiba and soon had us dreaming about the snorkel and land-based activities on offer for the last day in Panama.

Another fine dinner and a visit to the Panorama Lounge to listen to Daryl’s piano stylings rounded off a day to remember.

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