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The Panama Canal is a manmade waterway linking the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic Ocean (Caribbean Sea). The idea has been around since early explorers discovered that the two continents of the Americas are joined by a narrow piece of land. Work began on digging the canal in the late 19th Century, initially a French project headed by Ferdinand de Lesseps who had already had success with the Suez Canal. However, trying the same technique in Panama proved to be too difficult, partly because the first attempt involved digging down to sea level, and partly because at the time the medical science wasn't advanced enough to prevent such tropical diseases as malaria and yellow fever. The later attempt, this time by the USA, to build a canal with a huge artificial lake and lock gates, was successful, and the Panama Canal was declared open on August 15th 1914.
The Panama Canal is popularly described as one of the "Wonders of the World", for good reason. It is an engineering achievement of epic proportions! Ships of immense size are lifted up by the system of locks to get to Lake Gatun, and then they are lowered by the system of locks at other end, down to the other ocean.
Any Central American country where it's as hot as living in a greenhouse can do well from the bananas which grow very well, and from the tourism business as foreign visitors love to look at the exotic scenery. However, Panama is especially well-favoured geographically to have the location of the Canal, a modern industry which does very well in the modern world.
The price charged for a ship to go through the Panama Canal is based on the displacement tonnage. So, the bigger the ship, the more it costs. However, in terms of the alternative, sailing around South America, the canal toll is much cheaper, usually around 10% of the cost of going the long way around. Tolls for yachts and small boats are said to be disproportionate in terms of tonnage, because they compete for canal space with larger more profitable big ships. However, this may change with the expansion as more traffic will be allowed.
The maximum size for a ship to be able to fit through the Panama Canal is: 106ft wide, 965ft long, and with a draught of 39.5ft in tropical fresh water. This size is known as Panamax. Most ships are smaller than that.
In 2012, work is in progress to expand the Panama Canal, to allow even larger ships through, and to increase the capacity to allow more ships through. The new maximum size (New Panamax) is considerably larger, 160.7 ft wide, 1200ft long, and 49.9ft draught in tropical fresh water.
A project to build a canal of that size in the present day would be a vast endeavour, but to have achieved this as long ago as it was, makes the Panama Canal "the Moon Shot of its age".
The Panama Canal is an immense tourist attraction, observed with awe by large numbers of people both on shore and on ships.
For more information, here are some other sites about it...
That's the official site of the Panama Canal Authority - ACP - Autoridad del Canal de Panamá.
Also see Lost Paradise.com and also our own page about Panama
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vi19z4LEi0 - time lapse movie (It actually takes 8-12 hours to transit the canal)
http://www.canalmuseum.com/ - Panama Canal Museum
http://www.czimages.com/CZMemories/Gus/Gus_Index.htm - historic photos
http://www.ared.com/kora/java/pcc/javaani.html - Java explanation
...and other resources which will be added in good time.
One of the questions which people ask about Panama and the Panama Canal is: Is the sea level the same height in the Atlantic and the Pacific, or does the Atlantic have a higher sea level than the Pacific, or does the Pacific have a higher sea level than the Atlantic, and if there's a sea level difference between the Pacific and the Atlantic, then which way does the water flow through the Panama Canal?!
Well I can answer that. At Panama, the Pacific Ocean is about 20cm higher than the Atlantic Ocean. Also the Atlantic is saltier than the Pacific for various reasons. However, both these facts pale into insignificance because at the Isthmus of Panama, the tides of the Atlantic and Pacific are in opposite phase, so when it's high tide on one side it's low tide on the other, and vice-versa. So, if the Panama Canal were a big ditch cut right through the county at sea level, then water would ebb and flow at a considerable rate at different times of day. This does not happen, as the Panama Canal is a freshwater canal with lock gates. There's a huge artificial lake, lake Gatun, in the middle, at a height of about 85ft about sea level. Ships are raised up by locks in three steps to the lake, and then down again three steps on the other side. The lake is full of rainwater, and with each opening of the lock gates another 60 million gallons flows out. The answer to "Which direction does water flow in the Panama Canal?" is: Water flows out in both directions, into both oceans. There is plenty of jungle and plenty of rain, so there's plenty of water to keep on powering the whole system.
Note: Water can not pass through the Panama Canal, neither from the Pacific to the Atlantic, nor from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This is quite an important fact about the world and its climate. Over five million years ago, there was no Panamanian Isthmus, and water flowed inbetween the North and South American continents. Then volcanic activity put the Isthmus there, blocking off the flow of water from one ocean to the other. This radically changed the Earth's climate, very much for the better from a human perspective as there probably wouldn't be any humans if the Earth still had its pre-Panamanian global climate. The existence of the Isthmus makes the global climate quite different versus not having it. Different oceanographic flows, conveyors, polar ice, and regional climates.
Also see our own Travel Options page as well as the page about Panama