Lake Gatun

Beez Neez now Chy Whella
Big Bear and Pepe Millard
Tue 5 Feb 2013 23:18
Crossing Lake Gatun
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Our Advisor Ivan (ee-van) jumped on board at six o’clock. Anchor up we joined the big girls for our journey across the Gatun Lake.
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 Gatun Lake  at the time it was created, was the largest man-made lake in the world, and the dam was the largest dam on earth.

Description: The lake is situated in the valley of the Chagres River. It was formed, the river widened and deepened, by the construction of the Gatun Dam just over six miles from the river's mouth in the Caribbean Sea between 1907–1913. The geography of the area was ideal for the creation of a large lake; the hills bordering the valley of the Chagres open up widely around the area of the lake, but come together to form a gap just over a mile wide at the location of the dam. The damming of the river flooded the originally wooded valley; almost a century later, the stumps of old mahogany trees can still be seen rising from the water, and submerged snags form a hazard for any small vessels that wander off the marked channels. Ivan told us that to this day the submerged hundred year old plus mahogany trees are harvested and demand a pretty penny for such old, seasoned wood.

Gatun Lake has an area of one hundred and sixty four square miles at its normal level is eighty five feet above sea level; it stores 183,000,000,000 square feet of water, which is about as much as the Chagres River brings down in an average year.

With the creation of the lake many hilltops became islands. The biggest and best known of them is Barro Colorado Island, home of the world famous Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).

The lake has given its name to the Gatun structure, which may be an eroded impact crater. 




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It is quite one thing to see Eric or Bear’s glasses swapped between the men and Dee but quite another when Eric handed his over to Ivan as they read Bad Elf GPS attached to Eric’s IPad – Ivan pointing out the various islands, childhood haunts and local boat routes. Ivan has worked for the Panama Canal Company for twenty two of his forty two years. Advisor, Guide, Lecturer, Health and Safety Officer, Fire Inspector and Visitor Centre Information man. He clearly loves his job, the variety and told us all kinds of stories with such enthusiasm. We all loved him and hope we get him as our advisor on this leg. We told him our boat name and he promised to look out for us.



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Ivan handed Gary and Kate the computer readouts for todays south bound traffic, they could keep them as a keepsake


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The sad entry on the readouts for me was a tug who is clearly in bad shape judging by her description.



Role in the Canal: The lake is also important as a reservoir of water for the operation of the canal locks. Each time a ship transits the canal fifty three point four million US gallons of water is passed from the lake into the sea; with over fourteen thousands vessel transits per year, this represents a very large demand for water. Since rainfall is seasonal in Panama, the lake acts as a water store, allowing the canal to continue operation through the dry season.

A major factor in water regulation is the ability of the rainforest in the lake's watershed to absorb rainfall, releasing it gradually into the lake. However, significant deforestation of the watershed has cleared away much of the vegetation, and reduced the area's water capacity. This has resulted in falling water levels in the lake during the dry season. Coupled with the massive increase in canal traffic since its opening, and the resultant increase in water usage, this is an ongoing problem for the canal.




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I took the rainbow as a sign of good luck



Gatun Lake supplementary benefits: Eco-tourism on Gatun Lake has become a worthwhile industry for Panamanians. Gatun Lake also serves to provide the millions of gallons of water necessary to operate the Panama Canal locks each time a ship passes through and provides drinking water for Panama City and Colon.Angling is one of the primary recreational pursuits on Gatun Lake. Non-native Peacock Bass were introduced by accident to Gatun Lake around 1967 by a local businessman, and have since flourished to become the dominant angling game fish in Gatun Lake. Locally called Sargento, and believed to be the species Cichla Pleiozona, these peacock bass are not a native game fish of Panama but originate from the Amazon, Rio Negro and Orinoco river basins of South America where they are called Tucanare or Pavon and are considered a premier game fish.



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We had passengers for part of our journey across the lake


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We passed an old lighthouse and the Canopy Tower


The Canopy Tower is a very expensive bird watching retreat, too much for us sadly, but it holds the world record for the number of different bird species seen in one twenty four hour period a massive three hundred and sixty of the five hundred known species who thrive here. It is a five-storey converted radar station built by the Americans in the heart of the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve, maybe one day........


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Dredging is a constant chore


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This train we passed was too long to get it all in.

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The Centennial Bridge is only the second major road crossing of the Panama Canal, the first being the Bridge of the Americas. (Small service bridges are built into the lock structures at Miraflores and Gatún Locks, but these bridges are only usable when the lock gates are closed, and have limited capacity.) We have no need to worry as we slip under as the clearance is a massive two hundred and sixty two feet.

The Centennial Bridge is located nine and a bit miles north of the Bridge of the Americas, and crosses the Culebra Cut (Gaillard Cut) close to the Pedro Miguel locks. New freeway sections, connecting Arraijan in the west to Cerro Patacon in the east via the bridge, significantly alleviate congestion on the Bridge of the Americas.

In December 2010, the Centennial Bridge access road collapsed in a mudslide, and commercial traffic was diverted to the Bridge of The Americas. Ooops.


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Balder (not the best name for a working girl) came under the bridge, complete with her own tractor aboard and the tug Herera helping to keep her back end straight. This dry bulk carrier is on her way to Staten Island, New York, her flag is Marshall Island, built in 2002 at just over thirty eight feet draught, she’s a big girl, she trots along at sea at eight and a half knots.



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Balder turns the corner behind us as we pass Mackerel out cleaning the navigation buoys as the African Queen comes into view



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We pass the other New Zealand yacht in our nest of three, we see neat terracing and the African Queen overtakes us, ready to accept our lines as we approach the Miraflores Locks for the downhill part of our journey.


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This girl deposited her Pilot as she went by
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A termite nest way up in the top of the tree
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A floating mass of water hyacinth reminded us of being in the Rio Dulce
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As we approach the locks at Miraflores we see this big chap.
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Smiles from Gary and Kate as we enter the last step.