Friday, January 18, 2013

Panama Canal: Miraflores Locks

A cargo ship passing through the Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal.
    Yesterday we took a taxi to the one of three sets of  locks on the Panama Canal. The Miraflores Locks have a beautiful visitor's center, very family and kid friendly, and it was a great place to spend a hot afternoon. (Have I mentioned that it's hot in Panama?) Only about twenty minutes outside of Panama City, this is the first set of locks ships transit if they enter the canal from the Pacific. The more I see of the world, the more I realize how very little I know. I knew the Panama Canal joined the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and saved ships a long trip around the horn of South America, but that was about it. As we were watching a ship pass through the locks I joked with the kids that it would be so much more fun to be sitting in a classroom reading a book about it. I love days like this, when history comes to life, when science is hands on, and when learning takes place so naturally. In educating my kids I feel that I've gone back to school as well and I'm loving it! We learned so much yesterday and had a great time doing it.

The second floor of the museum is dedicated to showcasing some of the flora and fauna of the canal zone. Large metal and glass sculptures represent the trees of the rainforest.
Raphael and Pearl were delighted to spot a turtle and an iguana in an enclosed animal habitat. There were also some aquariums showing different fish, as well as specimens of butterflies and insects. There are some really big bugs around here!  
The world comes through Panama, and we feel very blessed to be here.

The third floor of the museum includes some fun, hands on exhibits for kids of all ages. This one shows how the immense gates open and close in the locks. On one side is a hand crank and you can watch the gears turn to open and close the gate, just the way they originally worked. On the other side, the gate opens using hydraulics. Raphael, who loves all things mechanical, was enthralled with this and begged to go back a second time. Of course we did!
Here it looks like the kids are about to enter one of the huge culverts that run under the canal.  Sensors and lights from above made it look like they were actually tramping along in the water.
Here's Peregrine at the command center, telling ships when they can pass through! Each day close to 40 ships can transit the canal. Only 28 slots are available for booking, and ships pay a 10% premium for the privilege of knowing they will get through on a certain day. Everyone else gets to "take a number" and go through when they are called. That explains the large number of ships we see waiting out in the bay at any given time. I imagine computers have made the logistics of running the canal simpler in many ways. I also like to imagine who the original builders of the canal would react to all of today's technology!
This was Peregrine's favorite: the navigation simulator. With a 3D film showing on three sides, and the sound and feel of engines vibrating beneath us, it really felt like we were making our way through the locks. All the kids had fun taking turns at the controls and watching as we passed through. 

We had to go through the locks in the "sim" a second time. 
On the fourth floor observation deck we were excited to get to watch a cargo ship pass through the locks.  Ships can carry over 4,000 containers and pay over $300,000 to transit the canal. The price is based on weight, size, and what they are carrying. (Interesting bit of trivia: the lowest fare ever payed was by Richard Halliburton, who, in 1928,  payed  thirty-six cents to swim the canal!) Specially trained Panama Canal pilots take over for the ship's captain to navigate through the canal. This ship is entering the locks from Miraflores Lake, which is at 56 feet above sea level. After crossing the small lake, they will be lifted an additional 31 feet. When the French attempted to build the Panama Canal in the late 1800s, one of the reasons they failed was because they tried to build at sea level like they'd done with the Suez Canal in Egypt. Hilly, tropical jungles proved much different then building across a flat desert, and after many years, the loss of thousands of lives and many fortunes, they gave up in defeat.
Notice in the above picture that the water in both sides of the locks is at the same level.
Water is drained using gravity and once the water in all the locks is level, the massive gates are opened to let the ship through. Just to give you an idea of the size of these, they are 65 feet wide and 7 feet thick!
Where does all the water come from? A large river was dammed to create Gatun Lake. The Canal is about 50 miles long, and over 30 miles of the waterway is across the manmade lake. It takes over 53,000,000 gallons of water for each ship that transits the canal, and this water comes from Gatun Lake.
Special electric locomotive engines pull the ships through the canal, keeping it centered.  The lock chambers are 110 feet wide by 1,050 feet long, and ships built the maximum size to go through the locks are called Panamax ships. Theses ships have only 24 inches of clearance on each side as they are pulled through! There can be up to 8 engines attached to the larger ships. These guys are good at what they do!
These ships are enormous! The crew look like miniature men from the observation deck high above.
You can just see the back of the ship as it passed by, piled high with containers, while another enters the locks on the other side. It takes an average of 8-10 hours for a ship to transit the canal.
The first two lock chambers are being filled once again, while the final chamber drains to lower the ship back down to sea level.  We learned a lot about what a challenge it was to build, and now, nearly 100 years later, work is being done to expand the locks so that larger ships can transit. Ships will be able to carry nearly three times as many containers once the expansion project is complete, which is scheduled to be around 2014. 
Poppy and I watched as another ships entered the locks. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Miraflores Locks. In addition to the museum, there was a short 3D movie that included a little history as well as information about the transfer of the canal from the United States to Panama. The kids loved the movie as well as the museum. All in all, it was a wonderful day, one we will remember for a long time. 

    You can take a virtual tour of the locks here and learn more about how they work here. There is also a great FAQ section here if you want to learn more! If you're ever in Panama, plan to spend a day exploring the visitor's center and watching the ships pass through. Admission for our family of six was less than twenty dollars and worth every penny. 


  1. What a great lesson! I sure don't remember learning all of that fascinating stuff in any class in public school!

    Thanks for the lesson, I can't wait to show the kids now!

    As always, the pictures are beautiful......

    Since I'm a major foodie, I love it when you post about the food you're eating in the different places or countries you're in! It's just me, I'm kind of weird!! Ha!

    Keep the posts coming!

  2. Thanks Leanne! I hope the kids enjoy it too!
    I've got a post about food coming up... stay tuned!

  3. here is another place with locks, that you can actually go through, in a glass bottom boat!

    1. Cool! That looks really fun! Thanks for the link.

  4. Unbelievable! And what a wonderful museum---how cool that it is so kid-friendly!!


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