5 Things To See During A Panama Canal Transit

28th February 2020

Even after more than 100 years, the Panama Canal remains an awesome sight and something that many cruisers place on their bucket list. This breathtaking feat of engineering was completed during a time when we didn’t have the technology available to us today, making it even more remarkable that the project ever came to fruition.

During a Panama Canal cruise with Star Clippers, you will get the chance to explore the San Blas Islands and discover Panama City, either side of your transit. However, what is there to see as you sail through the canal itself?

Three Sets of Locks

Panama Canal Lock

One of the most mesmerising aspects of the Panama Canal is the series of locks that elevate the ship to a height of 85 feet above sea level and then back down again. When large cruise ships make their transit, the sides of the vessel may be separated from the sides of the canal by just a few inches. Obviously, this won’t be the case on board Star Clipper, Star Flyer or Royal Clipper, but this means you’ll get a better view of what’s actually happening.

As the enormous gates shut behind the ship and the water starts to pour in (or drain out) a sense of anticipation spreads across the deck. Just watching the process up close is fascinating and the knowledge of the onboard expert (local authorities place one person on each ship to help with the crossing) will add to the experience. Another thing to watch out for are the ‘mules’, electric locomotives that take control of braking and side-to-side movement for the ship.

There are three sets of locks in total – the Gatun Locks, Pedro Miguel Locks and Miraflores Locks.

Exotic Wildlife

Howler Monkey

Although the area immediately surrounding the ship is rather industrial looking, just behind the mechanics of the canal are several stunning national parks. Soberanía National Park and Camino de Cruces National Park, as well as the islands dotted around Gatun Lake, are home to some amazing wildlife, which you may be able to see from the ship.

Keep your eyes peels for macaws taking to the skies, crafty crocs swimming beside the ship’s hull and howler monkeys rustling in the trees at eye level. In the case of the latter, it could be that you hear them before you see them, as howler monkeys have one of the loudest calls in the animal kingdom.

Bridge of the Americas

Bridge of the Americas

Depending on the direction in which you are transiting the canal, the Bridge of the Americas will mark the beginning or end of your journey. Connecting Panama City with western regions of the country, the bridge spans the Pacific mouth of the canal and has become one of the symbols of Panama. Just as the canal has increased water traffic in the area, enabling an influx of trade, the bridge has augmented the road traffic and allowed trade along the Pan-American Highway.

Built in 1962, it was actually named the Thatcher Ferry Bridge (in honour of Maurice H Thatcher and the eponymous ferry that used to service the route) but Panamanian officials felt this was too American and so voted to change it after just 10 days. The change, however, didn’t become official until the region became under Panamanian control in 1979.

Gatun Lake

Gatun Lake

The longest section of any Panama Canal transit is between the three Gatun Locks and the Culebra Cut. This body of water is known as Gatun Lake and represents a chance to relax and enjoy the beautiful surroundings. Once the largest man-made lake in the world, it plays a very important role in the functioning of the canal by providing a water source for the locks during the dry season.

This is the best part of the journey for spotting monkeys leaping around in the trees of the many islands (which are actually submerged hills!). Some of the patches of land are designated primate sanctuaries where howler monkeys, white-faced capuchins and spider monkeys are protected but able to roam free.

Titan (Herman The German)

Titan Crane

Dave Walker from Vancouver, Canada / CC BY-SA

This final entry is one for history fans to look out for. Following Germany’s defeat in World War II, the USA took a crane known as Schwimmkran nr. 1 as part of the war reparations. It was installed at Long Beach Naval Yard where it was used to refit battleships and lift aircraft into place (including the Spruce Goose). It was during this time that the crane was given the nickname Herman the German.

When the naval yard closed, the crane was transferred to the Panama Canal Commission and given the name Titan. Since 1996, it has been in operation on the banks of the canal, where it engages in a lot of the heavy lifting. Titan’s journey from building German U-boats in the Baltic to helping with the expansion of the Panama Canal is interesting for anyone fascinated by war history.


If you would like to tick a Panama Canal transit off your bucket list, talk to the Star Clippers team about our itineraries. You can call us on 0845 200 6145 or use our online chat.

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