As you transit the Panama Canal there are plenty of things to keep a lookout for:

Caisson – Safety in the Culebra Cut – Buoys – Lighthouses – Leading Marks – Canal Maintenance – Crocodiles – Manatees – Vultures – Mahogany Tree Stumps – US Military Relics – Panama Canal Railway – Tourist Boat Tuira II – Tourist Boat Fantasía del Mar – Tourist Boat Pacific Queen – Tourist Boat Islamorada – Smaller Tourist Boats – Private Yachts – Dredges and Dredging Work – Geology of the Canal – Landslides – Canal Changes – Panama Canal Stripe


This is a large watertight chamber which is open at the bottom. Water is kept out using pressurised air, so that construction work may be carried out underwater.

The caisson is used for maintenance in the lock chambers.

Safety in the Culebra Cut

Between Gatun Locks and Gamboa there are several ACP-designated ‘beaching’ areas where ships in distress can exit the buoyed channel and await help.

In the Culebra Cut there are no such areas, so every commercial vessel over 90 feet wide must be accompanied by at least one ACP tug, which is usually located on the stern of the ship.

Navigation is restricted in the Cut so that two large vessels cannot pass each other. This means the entire Canal operations operate around a schedule whereby northbound ships travel in the morning and southbound in the afternoon. A lot of the ships at anchor on Lake Gatun in the morning are waiting for the reverse in traffic.


The main channel of the Canal had 289 permanent buoys when we wrote this, but the number is constantly expanding as the channels are being dredged and altered.

Lateral buoys located north of the Pedro Miguel Lock are painted red to indicate the west side of the channel and green to indicate the east side. The colours reverse south of Pedro Miguel Lock.

Note that there are multiple navigation buoys with the same number. Look out for 60¼ and 60½ and the others marked A, B, C etc. Additional buoys have been added over the years to improve navigation, and instead of renumbering all the buoys, letters were used.


There are 40 lighthouses on the Canal, of which two are on Barro Colorado.

The oldest lighthouses are located in Punta Toro in the Atlantic and Flamenco in the Pacific, both dating from the period of construction of the Canal by the French, between 1881 and 1898.

Leading Marks

The Panama Canal does not run in a straight line, so as well as the buoys and lighthouses marking the edges, there are many leading marks indicating the direction of the channel.

These are pairs of structures with lines down the middle. When the Pilot can see them in line with each other he or she knows that the vessel under their command is in the centre of the channel.

The marks are lit at night, and are in the process of being updated with coloured lights.

Canal Maintenance

The ACP has a variety of cranes and other equipment to help with the constant maintenance required to keep the Canal in operation.


Crocodiles (salt and fresh water) up to 4-6 metres in length have been seen in the Canal waters. Your best bet for spotting a crocodile will be on the banks of the Canal along the Culebra Cut (just past the town of Gamboa), but they are sometimes in the locks themselves.

In 2015 they removed an 800-pound crocodile from Lake Gatun.


Manatees are believed to have been introduced in Lake Gatun in 1964 by the former Panama Canal Commission as part of an aquatic vegetation control program. However, a few years later, some of the manatees escaped during a storm, and shortly after the remaining manatees were released and the program was abandoned.

We have heard them in Lake Gatun but only at night so no photo yet!

Here is an article about a recent study of the manatees.


As much as everyone wants to see toucans and tropical birds, the most likely birds you will see are the black vultures that are abundant in Panama.

The most common is the Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) or American Black Vulture. They are found from southeastern United States to central Chile and Uruguay in South America, and they play an important role as scavengers.

They are entirely black except for a prominent white patch at base of primaries, which is visible in flight.

Mahogany Tree Stumps

If you transit Lake Gatun when the water level is low you will see the remains of the trees that were covered when Lake Gatun was formed.

Coast Eco Timber are harvesting some of the wood, but you will see that there are plenty of stumps around, which is a lot of the reason why smaller recreational vessels you are not allowed to explore the lake.

US Military Relics

The US military had more than a dozen installations throughout the Canal Zone, and there are many structures slowly being reclaimed by the rainforest.

Panama Canal Railway

The Panama Canal Railway is the oldest operating railway in the world.

The first track was constructed between 1850-1855 in response to the 1849 California gold rush. The Panama Canal Railway Company proved to be a veritable cash cow with one-way fares as much as US$25. The one-way fare today is? You guessed it, US$25!

The vintage dome car was built for the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1938.

The train runs parallel to the Canal, 47.6 miles from Colón to Balboa in Panama City, and will be on your port side.

Today a tourist train runs once every day departing at 07:15 from Panama City and back from Colon at 17:15.

The primary function of the railway today is to move some 1,500 containers a day between the Atlantic and Pacific ports, on trains with up to 55 flatbeds or double-stacks. This is done for container vessels, which are too large for existing lock chambers, and also to move empty containers.

Tourist Boat Tuira II

Tuira II (35.8 x 10.82 metres) has capacity for 492 passengers with two large decks. It was built in the US by Willey Manufacturing Co.

Cruises offered by Canal and Bay Tours (

This might be offered as an excursion from your ship as it is the largest tourist ship operating on the Canal. Of course you will experience the Canal on your transit. However, it is quite different to be on a much smaller vessel with a closer look at what is happening.

Tourist Boat Fantasía del Mar

Fantasía del Mar (35.66 x 8.69 metres) has capacity for 434 people. It was built in Booth Bay Harbor, Maine, USA by Eastern Shipbuilding Corp.

Cruises offered by Canal and Bay Tours (

Tourist Boat Pacific Queen

The Pacific Queen (36.3 x 7.6 metres) was designed specifically for day tours and cruises. It is a Norwegian built cruiser with capacity for 300 passengers.

Cruises offered through Panama Marine Adventures (

Tourist Boat Islamorada

After passing Gamboa you may be fortunate enough to see the tourist vessel Islamorada plying its trade. This vessel has a very colourful history and has completed more Canal transits than any other non-ACP vessel.

The 94-tonne, 96-metre-long Islamorada began sailing in March 1912 under the name “Santana,” after construction in a New England shipyard.

One of her more infamous owners was Al Capone who spared no expense fitting out the vessel. She was used as a ‘rum runner’ transporting rum and whiskey from Cuba and the Dominican Republic to the Florida Keys during the Prohibition era. Following Capone’s incarceration in Alcatraz the vessel was requisitioned for use in World War II by the US Navy.

She arrived in Panama in the 1960s to serve as a floating hotel for sport fishing and was later acquired by present owners Canal and Bay Tours, which run Canal cruises three or four times a week.

Cruise Ship Discovery

M/V Discovery is a 33m/110-foot purpose built catamaran that offers seven day cruises around Panama and through the Canal from March to November. She accommodates 24 guests in 8 queen and 4 twin cabins.

They go through the Panama Canal, and also visit an Embera tribe in the Darien, stop at Barro Colorado and explore the Chagres River.

Cruises are offered through Panama Marine Adventures (

Smaller Tourist Boats

You might see smaller boats like this one on Lake Gatun. These are tourist boats taking people to see the monkeys, crocodiles and other animals that live in the rainforest.

Private Yachts

As part of the ‘spirit of the Canal’, private yachts are permitted to transit the Canal. A big ship will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars per transit, while a private yacht pays around US$1,000.

Widening of the Canal

At the time of writing this guide there is an extensive dredging project underway near Gamboa in order to accommodate the neo-Panamax vessels using the new expansion locks. You should observe large earthworks on the starboard side.

You might see areas where large plastic tubes are pushed into the ground. These are for the dynamite, which will blow out the hard rock.

Geology of the Canal

Panama’s complicated geology was one of the major difficulties faced during construction of the Canal. In many places you can see the multi-layered rock and evidence of slips and cracks still occurring today.


Landslides were a problem from the very beginning of the Canal project, and played a big part in bankrupting the French effort.

More than 60 landslides over the years resulted in 45 million cubic metres of additional excavation before the Canal was handed over to Panama in 1979, as much volume as contained in 15 Cheops pyramids.

The worst of the slides occurred in 1912 in front of the town of Culebra, when 75 acres broke away. This was 10,000,000 cubic yards from the west bank and 7,000,000 cubic yards from the east bank, which took four months to dig out.

The Canal was closed for much of its second year of operation due to two massive landslides.

Canal Changes

On a recent transit this was the navigation system showing that the Canal dredging was ahead of the chart updates!

Work on the expansion of the Canal has included widening and straightening many of the channels.

You can see many places where the Canal has obviously been changed recently.

Panama Canal Stripe

Next time you go ashore, check to see if you have a souvenir stripe from your transit!

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