Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Panama Canal

When I lived in Gamboa, Panama for five months in 1983, I saw the Panama Canal every day. The road to Gamboa crossed the Chagres River via a one-lane bridge at the confluence of the river with the canal. It still does, 30 years later.

A ship passes Gamboa on its way to Panama City;
the one-lane bridge into Gamboa is in the foreground - Gamboa 1983
The Dredging Division for the Panama Canal is located in Gamboa--they work day and night to keep the canal open.
In Panama at that time, the National Guard and Police were all intertwined. We were stopped once by the police in Panama City for no reason that we could determine; to get underway though we had to bribe the policeman.
In 1983, the United States still had more than a dozen bases as well as control of the Panama Canal Zone. This became more clear to us by mid-February when the army started their war games. Gamboa--with the one lane bridge next to the canal--was one of the "strategic" locations to be defended. For ten days the army "occupied" Gamboa and they were quite serious. The good guys were protecting the canal and the bad guys were trying to take it over. Two years before the bad guys had won. There were many soldiers in Gamboa, plus a tank and jeeps and boats under the bridge. In years past they had done all kinds of strange things on Pipeline Road, but were asked by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute not to go out there.

During the 1983 games, when I was there, soldiers stopped us to ask if we had seen any jeeps up ahead. It was sometimes hard to keep a straight face, as we did not take it as seriously as they did. But since the U.S. invaded Panama in 1989, perhaps I should have taken it more seriously. Helicopters and planes and boats zipped up and down the canal for ten days. Some of the BCI researchers who were in boats in Gatun Lake said they were harassed during the games. Peter, a fellow researcher in Gamboa, was harassed by a couple army guys while he was watching orioles near the bridge. They thought he was an enemy spy. We were glad when they left. I'm not sure who won that year.

The Panama Canal was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from 1904 to 1914. The French had started the effort in the late 1880s, but gave up after thousands of workers died of yellow fever and landslides kept hampering their progress. The U.S. took over the effort; President Teddy Roosevelt helped move the project along in the early 1900s. The canal passes over the Continental Divide and is 85 feet higher in Gatun Lake than at sea level--at each end of the canal. This required the construction of three locks and dams to lift up boats and then lower them back down as they moved through the canal. No wonder civil engineers call this one of the seven wonders of the modern world.

The Continental Divide is located just south of Gamboa. The excavation of this ridge, which is called the Culebra Cut, is the narrowest part of the canal, such that only one ship can pass through at a time. Where the canal is wider, ships can easily pass each other.

The Culebra Cut along the Panama Canal, 1983
In addition to excavating vast amounts of material and building the locks and dams to create the canal, the Chagres River was dammed near the Caribbean side in 1910. This flooded a vast area that was named Gatun Lake. This was when Barro Colorado became an island and no longer an interconnected high point along a ridge-line.

Two ships pass each other in Gatun Lake,
as seen from Barro Colorado Island in 1983
Panama is currently in the midst of a massive project to widen the Culebra Cut and to add another lock and dam at each end of the canal. Wikipedia has a nice map of the Panama Canal showing the existing route, the locations of the existing locks and dams, and the new locks that are under construction. This map also shows Gamboa (the small town where I lived in 1983) and Barro Colorado Island, one of our study sites.

Map of Panama Canal from Wikipedia
(attributed to Thomas Römer/OpenStreetMap data)
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter negotiated the return of the Panama Canal Zone to the Republic of Panama on December 31, 1999. President George H.W. Bush invaded Panama in 1989 to remove General Noriega. Through all that time and up to present day, ships moved through the canal, researchers visited BCI and Pipeline Road, and the slow pace of life in Gamboa continued.

The pace of progress though is encroaching on the lowland tropical forests that harbor all those wonderful creatures that we witnessed in 1983. In 1952, 80% of the canal watershed was forested, by the late 1980s it was only 47% forested. Each ship through the canal requires 50 million gallons of water--to raise it up and lower it down as it moves through the lock systems. People began to realize that maintaining a forested, undeveloped watershed was critical to replenishing the vast amounts of water needed to run the canal system. Mature tropical trees take up, store, and slowly release hundreds of gallons of water--water that would otherwise runoff and cause erosion, if the trees were removed. So protecting the lowland forests is important for the diversity of life and for the viability of the canal, which is a huge economic engine for Panama.

If you plan a trip to Panama, I recommend a visit to Gamboa. Birding along Pipeline Road is some of the best in the world. A new resort--the Gamboa Rainforest Resort--has been built in Gamboa with some guidance from tropical researchers to attract ecotourists. It is much more plush than our apartment or our camp at Limbo Hunt Club, but might be worth the extra expense to see a cool part of the Panama Canal and its environs.


  1. Hi Ellen,

    I've enjoyed all of these Panama posts. As I read this latest one I was reminded of my online artist friend. She has written a fair amount about her own adventures there artistic and otherwise. You might enjoy reading some of them. I'm going to try to include a link to her blog here Drawing the Motmot.

    Hopefully that link will show up correctly.


  2. Hi Ken,

    Thanks for the note and for reading the blog! I used to follow Drawing the Motmot -- I might have come across her first through your site. Can't remember. For some reason I dropped off, but you've inspired me to check in again, especially since I love motmots so :-)

    Thanks, Ellen