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Tuesday January 14, 2014: Taking the Panama Canal into Lake Gatun, Panama
In Panama we had signed up for the tour out to see the authentic Indian settlement at Embera Puro, but first we spent the morning negotiating the set of 3 Gatun locks from the Caribbean Sea into Lake Gatun in the middle of Panama.
It was still dark when we approached the lighthouse that signaled the entrance to the Panama Canal and we watched the sun slowly rising over the hills of Panama.
We headed up to have breakfast in the Lido before settling on the balcony to watch us approach the canal entrance and wait our turn to enter. A naturalist up on the bridge told us what we were seeing including some unexpected wildlife. When the naturalist told us that the first officer had spotted a crocodile on the banks, Monika zoomed in on it with her 26X camera and managed to get a good picture of the crocodile and even of a frigate bird cruising high over us.
We watched the lowest lock on our side slowly emptying while a ship came out of the other chamber. Tugboats assisted each vessel in or out of the first lock, and although the process seemed to take forever, we truly never got bored watching it unfold in front of us.
The passage through the three locks was just as interesting as it had been on our passage through the Panama Canal on Ausflug 36. It was still amazing how something as big as our ship could be raised rather rapidly when the locked filled.
Also surprising was that the hollow steel lock doors, which were built like the hull of a ship with reinforcing ribs and steel plates, were the same ones installed in 1914, making them just 100 years old. How come they had not rusted to pieces with all the exposure to salt water and such? There was a bit of rust on the top of the gates on the second lock, but otherwise they looked like new. Amazing. We also saw the huge lock doors of the new, larger locks being built to allow larger ships to cross the isthmus, which were sitting alongside the original canal, waiting to be installed in the new locks when they are completed.
I was surprised to learn that the total time to fill or empty a lock is only 8 minutes. However, the process of getting the ship lined up for the lock, connecting tow lines from the "mules", small diesel locomotives equipped with winches and cables to hold the ships steady in the lock, waiting for the preceding ship to clear the lock and then finally equalizing the water level, were very all time-consuming operations. The result was that it took us almost 3 hours to work through all three locks and be raised by about 85 feet to the level of Lake Gatun.
Once out on the lake, the Coral Princess made a sharp U-turn and anchored just off the shore next to the locks. We could see a parking lot with the tour busses over on the shore, and we tendered over to the shore using the ship's lifeboats. Our tour rumbled off in a motor coach that was, thank goodness, air-conditioned, because already at mid-morning the day was getting hot. We drove past a countryside with some nice houses and some rather ramshackle ones, but no place looked destitute as in other areas of Central America. We even saw some home-grown coffee beans drying on large plastic tarpaulins in the yards of some of the homes!
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