Since the Panama Canal opened a passageway between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans nearly a century ago, nearly one million ships have sailed through. Building the channel across the Isthmus of Panama began in 1882, but disease, geography and politics delayed its completion until 1914. More than 27,000 workers lost their lives during construction. Now, what's been called "the greatest engineering feat in the world" is being expanded, so today's larger ships can take advantage of this vital link in global maritime trade.
Colossal is the best word to describe the dimension of the expansion works here. With an investment of $5.5 billion, the Panama Canal will soon have a third channel for the transit of much larger ships. Jorge Luis Quijano, the canal's executive vice president of engineering, says the canal is operating at full capacity and needs to expand.
"This new canal actually is offering a larger vessel that it can handle with deeper draft with a longer and wider vessel," noted Quijano.
Here at the Gatun, locks on the Atlantic side of the original Panama Canal, ships pass just centimeters away from the concrete walls on both sides. These vessels cannot be more than 32 meters wide, and ride only 12 meters deep in the water.
The new locks - now being built parallel to the old ones - will handle ships up to 49 meters wide with drafts of more than 15 meters.
This ship passing through the Gatun Locks is heading south, into Lake Gatun and on to the Pacific Ocean. Parallel to it is the excavation for the new, larger canal.
"This is the existing canal that is composed of two sets of locks and this is the third set of locks, it's a third line for the ships to go by," explained Oscar Soto, the chief engineer for the Atlantic region.
At Lake Gatun - created 100 years ago to supply water for the canal - Captain Ubaldo Pimentel has been running a passenger boat for decades. He says engineers are using dredging ships and dynamite to create deeper, wider passageways to the new Gatun locks.
"The mountain used to get all the way to the red buoy," Pimentel noted. "They took all that material and pushed it back to widen the lake."
For nearly a century, many cargo ships were designed specifically to fit the Panama locks. In the last few decades, however, larger vessels, known as post-Panamax ships, have been forced to carry their cargo around South America. When it's completed, in 2014, the new 80-kilometer-long channel will admit some of those larger ships, but as engineering vice president Jorge Luis Quijano explains, not the largest.
"No, no quite. We had to look at the optimal size of vessel that would make the return on the investment, of a high value to us. So we chose what size of vessels that could actually pay for this project," Quijano explained.
Still, the project means officials will be able to double the amount of cargo the canal can handle.
"The present canal has a total capacity of about 340 million tons a year that it can handle, that's the maximum capacity," Quijano noted. "With the expansion we expect to double that, over 600 million tons that we can handle in a year."
That's important, because ships using the canal pay by weight. Canal authorities expect more than half of the multi-billion-dollar expansion costs to be paid by today's canal traffic, with the larger ships using the new channel paying for the rest.
The massive canal expansion is being done by several international contractors, but 90 percent of their work force is Panamanian.
Working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, the project is moving ahead on schedule, to open in 2014, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the Panama Canal. The celebration, they say, will be colossal.