National Geographic News
Photo of the first tugboat passing through Gatun Locks on September 26, 1913.

A crowd of onlookers watches as the seagoing tug the Gatun makes the first trial run through the Gatún Locks, on September 26, 1913.

Photograph by Roscoe G. Searle, National Geographic

Roff Smith

for National Geographic

Published August 15, 2014

Even after a century of constant use and the passage of more than a million ships, the great steel gates of the Miraflores locks, at the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal, still swing open with the precision of a Swiss watch.

So exquisitely fitted and balanced are they that each of the 672-ton leaves can be moved by a pair of 25-horsepower motors. The same can be said for the massive Gatun locks on the Caribbean side. Engineered in the days of Teddy Roosevelt, their doors cast in good Pittsburgh steel, the locks—like the canal itself—were designed to handle with ease ships the size of the Titanic.

And so they can still—as long as the ships come that small.

Nowadays many don't. Of the roughly 14,000 ships that transit the Panama Canal each year, more than half have beams in excess of a hundred feet and can barely squeeze through the old locks, which can accommodate ships up to 106 feet wide. The Titanic, by comparison, had a relatively svelte 92-foot beam.

Finessing a large, modern ship through the locks isn't for the faint of heart.

"Picture yourself more than 700 feet from the bow of a vessel, standing on a bridge that's 12 to 15 stories high, and then easing it forward into the lock with only two feet of clearance either side," says Captain Miguel Rodriguez, a veteran canal pilot and president of the canal's board of inspectors, "and you'll have some idea what it's like piloting a big vessel into the lock. Then imagine doing it in the dark and in the rain."

As skillful as Captain Rodriguez and his fellow pilots may be, even their talents only go so far.

Photo of Gatun Upper Locks under construction, looking North.
Gates of the original Gatún Upper Locks being assembled on the site in 1911. For the construction of the new locks, the gates are being made in Europe and shipped whole to Panama. The next set of gates is expected to arrive in September.
Photograph by Ernest Hallen, National Geographic

Era of the Behemoths

An increasing percentage of the world's ships—more than a third of bulk carriers, tankers, and container vessels, as well as the biggest of the glitzy new cruise liners—simply can't use the Panama Canal at all. They're just too big.

Indeed, a study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicts that by 2030 nearly two-thirds of the world's container ships would be too big to use the existing locks in the Panama Canal. (Related: "Is Nicaraguan Canal a Boon for Trade or a Boondoggle?")

As it is, the colorful old canal, which is celebrating its hundredth birthday this week, has been losing market share in recent years, with Asian companies preferring to use bigger, more cost-effective vessels via the Suez Canal or to ship their goods to the U.S. West Coast and move them onward by rail.

Map of Panama Canal
Panama Canal graphic of the new third lane

Supersize Me!

In 2006, Panamanians voted to give their canal a $6 billion makeover: dredging its channels, widening the famous Culebra Cut across the Continental Divide, and constructing a gigantic new set of state-of-the-art locks 1,400 feet long and 180 feet wide. Work began in 2007, and as of this week, it's 80 percent complete.

When the new locks eventually open for business, sometime in the first quarter of 2016, the grand new Panama Canal will have double the cargo capacity of the old. It will be able to handle 99 percent of the world's container ships and 81 percent of the huge liquefied natural gas (LNG) tankers—almost none of which use it now.

It will be a pivotal moment, says Valentine Lynch, vice president of planning and business development for the Panama Canal Authority. "Not just for Panama but for the all of the trade-driven commerce that is impacted by the Panama route."

Photo of cargo ships at Colon Port near the Panama Canal.
A flotilla of cargo ships wait their scheduled turn to enter the Gatún Locks, near Colón, on the Caribbean side of the canal. A typical transit through the canal takes about ten hours, and tolls can run well into six figures for the largest ships. The cheapest toll in the history of the canal was the 36 cents charged to American adventurer Richard Halliburton, who swam the length of the canal in 1928.
Photograph by Jose Miguel Gomez, Reuters

Seaports Scrambling

The money being spent to widen the canal is modest compared to the billions that seaports on the U.S. eastern seaboard are spending to prepare for the arrival of the massive container ships from Asia once the newly widened canal is opened.

From Miami to Boston, harbors are being dredged, road and rail links expanded, and huge new cranes put in place to unload the more than 13,000 containers that each of the giant carriers can hold—enough storage space for a million flat-screen TVs or more than a hundred million pairs of running shoes in a single load.

In Focus

The Bayonne Bridge, between New York City and New Jersey, is being raised—at a cost of a billion dollars—to give the towering ships room to pass through.

In Baltimore, a new intermodal railway complex is being built to help haul away the thousands of containers.

A $600 million tunnel is being dug under Miami so trucks hauling thousands of containers away from the docks can bypass downtown streets.

Photo of machinery seen at the construction site of the Panama Canal Expansion project.
Giant dump trucks sit idle on the construction site near Colón earlier this year, when cost overruns and disagreements among the consortium partners halted work.
Photograph by Carlos Jasso, Reuters

Ports around the Caribbean and South America—Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Venezuela—are also scrambling. "With East Asia sourcing more and more raw materials out of Latin America, in particular coal and iron ore, the expanded canal will offer enormous new opportunities," Lynch says.

American soybean farmers will also benefit. More than a third of the harvest is already exported through the Panama Canal. Expanded locks and bigger carriers will allow farmers to deliver more of their crop to Asian markets more cheaply.

Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries, Lynch says, will be the U.S. natural gas industry centered on the Gulf of Mexico. "The expanded canal will facilitate transporting gas from the gulf to Asia," he says. "Most of the LNG vessels can't transit through the existing canal but will be able to transit through the expanded canal." (See "North American Natural Gas Seeks Markets Overseas.")

Photo of workers at the construction site of the Panama Canal Expansion project.
One of the giant new locks takes shape on the Pacific side, near Panama City. When the locks open their doors for business, expected to be sometime early in 2016, they'll be able to accommodate ships up to 1,200 feet long and 160 feet wide.
Photograph by Rafael Ibarra, Reuters

A Monumental Undertaking

Building a canal across the Isthmus of Panama—or expanding an existing one—is a monumental undertaking.

The original timetable for the expansion called for the new set of locks to be launched this week as the showpiece of the hundredth anniversary celebrations. Cost overruns and construction delays pushed the date back 18 months.

At that, today's canal builders are having a pretty smooth ride compared with the engineers whose efforts they're celebrating this week. (See "Picture Archive: Building the Panama Canal, 1900s.")

The French, who made the first attempt to build the canal, starting in 1881, lost thousands of workers to malaria and yellow fever before giving up and eventually selling their concession to the U.S. government in 1903.

The Americans also found it tough going, with mudslides, yellow fever, and the jungle itself taking a heavy toll.

But unlike the French, who had been determined to build a sea-level canal just like the one they'd built at Suez, American engineers opted for an ingenious series of locks to lift ships up and over the Continental Divide. The locks they built are still in use today—and will continue to be used after the new ones come on-stream in 2016.

"My hat goes off to those guys," says Ilya Marotta, executive vice president of engineering for the Panama Canal Authority, who's been overseeing the expansion project. "They were geniuses. With far less technology than we have today, they accomplished something remarkable and built a project which is still running like a charm a hundred years later."

Photo of cnstruction workers in a water tunnel at the construction site of Panama Canal's Pacific expansion project in Cococli.
Construction workers labor in a water tunnel at one of the new locks on the Pacific side. At the peak of construction, some 34,000 workers were engaged on the project, compared with the 56,000 required to build the original canal between 1904 and 1913.
Photograph by Arnulfo Franco, AP

With today's technology, she says, "it's been a lot easier to build these locks than it was for the builders of the original ones. We didn't have the health issues they had, and safety standards have come a long way."

According to Marotta, the biggest challenge, aside from the sheer magnitude of the project, was coordinating the efforts of the multinational consortium that came together to build it.

"This project brought together talents and expertise from all over the world. The gates were designed in the Netherlands and fabricated in Italy. The valves came from Korea. Other components were made in the USA, China, France, Italy, Germany, and Spain. It's a worldwide project taking shape in Panama."

The Panamanian jungle is as lush and green as ever, and a hundred years after the S.S. Ancon steamed into history by becoming the first vessel officially to transit the Panama Canal, the 48-mile passage between the seas is still one of the most flamboyant journeys on Earth, bright with parrots and the flavor of the exotic.

Pilot's Pleasure

It's a journey that Captain Rodriguez has never grown tired of, despite making well over 1,500 transits on every kind of vessel in his 27 years as a canal pilot.

"It's an incredible job," he says. "At the end of each transit, you get instant gratification when you see your work done, say goodbye to the master of the ship at the end of the transit, and watch the vessel depart from Panama."

It's stressful work, no doubt, but it's also unique and a source of great pride. Panama Canal pilots are the only ones in the world who actually relieve the master and take control of the navigation and movement of the vessel.

Photo of the Panama Expansion project construction site on August 8, 2014.
The Panama Canal's skyline of cranes has prompted local wits to claim that the construction crane rather than the endangered harpy eagle ought to be Panama's national bird. The huge project—one of the world's great feats of engineering—is scheduled to finish late next year. Land has already been set aside for the future, when still bigger locks may be needed.
Photograph by Rafael Ibarra, Reuters

Getting used to the giant new locks will be a challenge, as will maneuvering enormous ships through the navigation channels in the Culebra Cut and Lake Gatun.

"We're already training on simulators for the day when the new locks come into service," Captain Rodriguez says. "The new locks on the Atlantic side are expected to be ready for testing a few months prior to the ones on the Pacific, so we're planning on taking advantage of that to perform some training and testing with a vessel we'll lease just for this purpose.

"I don't know who'll be the first pilot to go through these new locks," he says, jokingly suggesting that the senior pilots could draw straws for the honor.

"I know I'm certainly looking forward to the day I do go through them as a pilot. A lot of work and effort has been put into this, and I'd love to be part of that history. It will be a proud moment for many of us and for Panama."

Dongsheng Zhang
Dongsheng Zhang

It is an obvious corrupt and fool decision to build the Three Gorge Dam in the red China, which destroyed the one of the most beautiful nature scenes in the world and has been trigering numerous nature disarters.

Thomas Leavitt
Thomas Leavitt

Massive investment for based on the presumed long term continuance of an industrial age economy of mass manufacturing... how wise is this, given upcoming technological changes (such as widespread 3D printing)? In my view, the odds of 100 million pairs of shoes being regularly shipped to the East Coast from China at a time, or 1 million LCD TVs, twenty years from now, are low and decreasing... it will be interesting to see how the mix of cargoes changes over the ensuring decades. I suspect raw materials may form an increasing proportion.

peter rabenold
peter rabenold

I had a different experience with the canal back in the early 80's. We would swim out right next to the dredged shipping lane at night in Gatun Lake. The ships came by as a big, black wall with lights far overhead. The unexpected part was how intense the vibration was in the water. The submarines on the other hand, were just a silent blinking beacon slipping by visible just above the water. Memorable!

Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

"Pittsburgh Steel"

Wow funny to think we actually use to make things.

James Webster
James Webster

The construction sight needed several live feed cameras set up so people could have watched construction progress over the years

Phil Blank
Phil Blank

Aug. 11th, the online BBC Magazine section had a good article on how it was living there back then.

Who on earth are the Zonians?

By Kate Dailey BBC News, Washington

Phil Blank
Phil Blank

Stop screwing around and build iteven bigger still.

Ships will just keep getting bigger.

Susan R.
Susan R.

My father was in the Army and we lived in Panama in the 60's during a time of civil riots and the Canal getting "remodeled". We used to go down there just to watch ships pass through the locks and the construction work. It was simply amazing.  I just wish I could see the changes that are being made now, Such a huge, monumental piece of work would be awesome to see.

walter gillis
walter gillis

I find it hard to believe that the U.S. treasury was not robbed by the tyrants in D.C. to fund this rebuild.

Michael K.
Michael K.

Stealing Panama from Colombia was the first and the easiest step.

Roff Smith
Roff Smith expert

@Thomas Leavitt

Certainly technologies like 3D printing will change the manufacturing landscape, although whether the new printing technology will ever - or within a reasonable span of time - be able to do mass production on such a scale is an open question (and one the 3D people are beavering away trying to solve)

Asia will still be have a strong and growing need to resources - be it soy beans, iron ore or natural gas and much of it will be coming from South America, the gas fields in the Gulf of Mexico or America's agrarian heartland and so a supersized Panama Canal will have plenty of uses. The Panamanians did their sums pretty well before they sunk $6 billion into this project. 

Roff Smith
Roff Smith expert

@peter rabenold

You were brave. 

There are a lot of crocodiles in there. When Richard Halliburton swam the length of the canal in 1928 he had to have a man with a rifle accompany him in a boat to keep the crocs away.

A few years ago I went out on a little boat to one of the little islands in Lake Gatun for a picnic and was surprise by how much reptilian company I had on the way.

craig hill
craig hill

@Phil Blank Mostly Americans who live(d) in the old US domain of the Panama Canal Zone. John McCain was born there.

Johan Baumeister
Johan Baumeister

@walter gillis The Panamanians paid for it themselves.  We no longer control Panama or the Canal Zone.  Keep up with the times...

Johan Baumeister
Johan Baumeister

@Michael K. We no longer control Panama or the Canal Zone.  If you read the article more carefully, you'll notice that the Panamanians are the ones who voted for this expansion.  We handed over control of the Canal Zone years ago.  Keep up with the times, man.


@Johan Baumeister I bet Walter doesn't know who was in office (US President) when the Canal Zone was turned over to the Panama.

Tony Karais
Tony Karais

@JE R. @Johan Baumeister Wasn't it Carter? I know that the US tried to sell it off decades ago but no one wanted it and the American public didn't want it sold. I also remember the outcry from the far right about how selling it would be a national disaster for the US from an economic and security stand point. Neither of which happened.


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