Panama 150 150 Sarity Gervais

Panama Canal, Lake Gatun

Upon looking at the upcoming cruises on the Kosherica website, I noticed that there is a winter cruise to Panama Canal, amongst other spectacular ports of call. Today I’d like to geek around with the formation of the Panama Canal and then with Lake Gatun in the beautiful valley of the Chagres River.

Panama Canal, a mindboggling achievement for mankind and a testament to the tenacity of the human spirit, is a man made waterway, a miracle, which took 34 years of labour (first under failed French efforts through 1880-1903, then completed under American supervision, 11 yrs. later). At least 22,000 workers perished in its construction, due to earthquakes, mudslides disease, shabby working conditions and failing equipment. An additional 5,600 casualties were found, due to the spread of Yellow Fever and Malaria (a fact uncovered by the American government after the Canal’s inauguration in 1914).

Many compare the completion of the canal under the helm of President Teddy Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy’s determination to put a man on the moon.

The Canal represents a 7500- mile saving in ocean navigational distance, resulting in a short 50 mile journey to cross the landmass between North and South America and the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

Here is where ancient geology must be mentioned. The continents of South and North America were separated 20 million years ago by a gap through which the waters of the Atlantic and pacific oceans flowed freely. Beneath the surface two plates of earth crust were moving closer, until the Pacific plate was forced slowly under the Caribbean plate. The heat and pressure of the giant collision caused underwater volcanoes, some erupting to the surface and causing the formation of islands. In the next several million years, a multitude of volcanic island erupted, filling in the area. In the meanwhile, the two tectonic plates began pushing up the ocean floor, eventually to surface above sea level. The mud and soil from strong ocean currents and winds, a massive amount of sediment kept filling in the gaps between the islands, until they were completely filled. By about 3 million years ago, a narrow line of land (an Isthmus) joined South and North America, with oceans on either side. This obstruction in the flowing of the two oceans is one of the most important geological events to happen on earth in the past sixty million years. It actually had a huge impact on earth’s environment and climate, rerouting the path of both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, shutting down their flow and rerouting each forcibly. The Atlantic began flowing north, with warm Caribbean water flowing toward northeast. The pattern they created is called the Gulf Stream. The Atlantic became warmer, thus considerably warming up the then ice covered Northern Europe, by at least 10 degrees. The circulation patterns of the oceans around the globe, which regulate atmospheric changes and rainfall, are considered a direct result.

Another amazingly interesting change created by the Panama Isthmus, is the biodiversity in the world. It became a bridge, allowing animals and plants to migrate between continents. The armadillo, opossum and the porcupine are immigrants to Northern America, (no green card needed), little South American creatures who crossed the bridge between the two continents. Bears, horses cats dogs raccoons and more made the opposite migration, and now are all over the South American continent.

Lake Gatun, a man made lake is a fascinating place, that provides millions gallons of water needed to operate the locks of the Canal, used each time a ship passes through. Also drinking water for Panama City and Colon are supplied through it.

It also forms a major part of the Canal, carrying ships for 33 kilometres of their transit. The natural layout of the Lake’s location is an impassable rain forest, which surrounds it. This served as a natural, built in defence of the Panama Canal, and up until today has remained undisturbed by human interference. It is one of the few accessible areas on earth where a variety of Central American animal and plant species can be studied and observed undisturbed in their natural habitat. The Lake is home to the famous Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, where some of the most important ground breaking scientific and biological discoveries originated, in both the tropical animal and plant kingdoms.

As soon as the ship enters the Lake, one is able to experience the steamy, humid forest filled with howler monkeys, sloths hanging on the trees a huge variety of bird life, crocodiles sunning and waiting for prey, all accompanied by the sounds of chirping, bird songs and frog croaks. You feel like you’re in the middle of paradise, pure unscathed nature. The Lake led to the inevitable creation of hilltop towns, half drowned islands the largest of which is Barro Colorado Island, where the Smithsonian Research Institute is located. The Institute ensured the protection of USA owned Pearl Island, while doing their research, maintaining to eternity the original beauty of this diverse and spectacular environment.

Written by Sarity Gervais