Linking the Atlantic to Pacific Ocean, Panama Canal provides one of the most unforgettable cruising experiences. More than 10 years were needed to complete canal's 51 miles in 1914 and thus to avoid the lengthy and dangerous cruise around Cape Horn.
The ships are lifted by 'The Big Ditch' through a fascinating feat of mechanics that is aided by onshore 'mule' locomotives via 3 great locks, traversing artificial lakes, channels blasted through rock, and dense jungle. This unique narrow waterway has become a route between oceans for seabirds like cormorants and pelicans, as well as ships.
Panama Canal was a culmination of a dream that begins in 1513 with Spanish conquistador Balboa who was the first European to travel the 43 ml (70 km) wide isthmus. In 1880, the French Canal company started construction works, but due to financial and engineering problems had to sell its rights to the USA for USSD 40 million, with a loss of USD 240 million. The US began construction in 1904. The monumental project was completed in 10 years at a cost of nearly USD 387 million. Currently the USA still oversees the canal operations, though it signed a treaty during the late 1970s to transfer it back to Panama by the 21st century.
Panamax-sized ships are the bigger vessels that can fit through the canal's old locks, Such cruise vessels are limited to max LOA length 1050 ft (320 m) and max width / beam 110 ft (33,5 m). Among the many cruise ship classes designed to allow Panama Canal transition are Millennium-class (Celebrity), Coral-class (Princess) and Signature-class (Holland America). However, all new cruise ships exceed the canal's old locks limits.
- Although many cruise lines already feature Panama Canal transition itineraries (Princess, Celebrity, Holland America, Disney among others), they are restricted to using their smaller ships. The expansion allowed for larger cruise liners to traverse canal's 49-ml (79 km) stretch.
- However, height restrictions remain because of the 1962-built "Bridge of the Americas" (clearance below 61,3 m / 201 ft at high tide) limiting the vessels' size. Princess Cruises currently offers canal crossing itineraries on the Island Princess (2214-passenger) and Coral Princess (1970-passenger). The expansion allowed the company to deploy on the canal the larger Caribbean Princess (3080-passenger).
- So, as the new locks are now opened and functioning, will the world's largest cruise ship be able to fit through them? The short answer is - no. The new locks, which are in parallel with the old ones, measure 1400 x 180 ft (439x55 m) with draft 60 ft (18 m). However, the max allowed cruise ship dimensions are 1200 x 161 ft (366x49 m) and draft 50 ft (15 m). World's largest cruise ships (RCI's Oasis-class) are indeed within these new lock dimensions, but their height of 236 ft (72 m) above waterline doesn't clear the Bridge of the Americas (spanning over the canal's Pacific entrance). So unless the bridge is either removed or replaced by a taller one, the Oasis-class sister-ships Allure, Oasis and Harmony can't pass through Panama Canal.
- Cunard's liner RMS Queen Mary 2 (specifically designed to clear the 228 ft / 70 m height of NYC's Verrazano-Narrows Bridge) also joins the list of large ships unable to transit the Canal.
- Luckily, NCL Norwegian's Breakaway-class ships (Breakaway and Getaway) and the succeeding Breakaway Plus-class (Bliss, Escape and Joy) clear a full Panama Canal transit.
Panama Canal cruising season runs October through April.
- The canal operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with 35-40 vessels passing through every day. Each transit takes about 8-10 hours.
- During season 2016-2017, the number of cruise ship transits through Panama Canal was 223. For season 2016-2017, the this number was 241.
- For season 2017-2018, Panama Canal cruise ship schedule had listed a total of 236 vessels booked for passing through the Expanded Canal (new Panamax and Neopanamax Locks). Among the most famous were Caribbean Princess, Carnival Freedom, Carnival Splendor, Norwegian Bliss. The list of cruise lines with ships passing through the new locks included Princess, NCL Norwegian, Carnival, Silversea, Viking, Lindblad.
- As of 2018, the Alaska-based Norwegian Bliss is the largest cruise liner ever through Panama Canal.
Panama Canal alternatives for ship crossings between Atlantic and Pacific oceans are the Strait of Magellan (between South America and Antarctca) and the Northwest Passage (in the Canadian Arctic territories).
On April 30, 2017, Disney Wonder became the world's first ever cruise vessel that passed through Panama Canal's new set of locks.
Disney Cruise Line's 2713-passenger ship Wonder was on a 14-night repositioning cruise from Florida to California (Port Canaveral to San Diego). From San Diego, the ship operated several Baja Mexico itineraries before its summer Alaskan season with departures from Vancouver BC Canada. The following table shows this unique itinerary as ports of call (dates, arrival/departure times) and port sequence.
|23 Apr||Departing from Port Canaveral, Orlando, Florida|
|25 Apr 09:00 - 16:00||Cozumel, Mexico|
|28 Apr 06:00 - 14:00||Cartagena, Colombia|
|29 Apr||Panama Canal transit|
|04 May 08:00 - 15:00||Puerto Vallarta, Mexico Riviera|
|05 May 08:00 - 15:00||Cabo San Lucas, Baja California Mexico|
|07 May||Arriving in San Diego, California|
Cruise ship transiting Panama Canal via the old locks operate full transition cruises through all the 3 sets of old locks - named Pedro Miguel, Miraflores and Gatun (bordering the lake). Some Princess ships offer an extra day in Port Fuerte Amador (Panama City).
- The first Princess cruise ship with partial transits throuth the new locks was Caribbean Princess - on 10-day roundtrips from Fort Lauderdale (Port Everglades, Florida). The ship's first ever transit was on October 26, 2017. The itinerary's ports of call were Princess Cays (Bahamas), Cartagena (Colombia), Panama Canal, Colon (Panama), Puerto Limon (Costa Rica) and George Town (Grand Cayman).
Panama Canal statistics
- On August 22, 2017, the CMA CGM Theodore Roosevelt (launched in 2015) became the largest container vessel transiting via the new canal locks. The cargo ship has TEU container capacity 14855, LOA length 366 m (1200 ft) and width 48 m (157 ft).
- In FY17 (Fiscal Year 2017 / Oct 1, 2016 through Sept 30, 2017), Panama Canal broke all previous annual cargo tonnage records, reporting a traffic volume of 403,8 million tons. This was a 22,2% increase over 2016, and directly attributed to the Expanded Canal's added capacity of Neopanamax ships. According to FY17 figures, the waterway was transited by a total of 13,548 vessels (3,3% increase over FY16). The cargo volume projection for FY17 was 399 million tons. In 2017, the Canal served 29 major containership line services, including 15 Neopanamax shipping services on the trade routes between East Coast USA and Asia. The containership segment is the Canal's leading market (35,3% of all cargoes, or 143 million tons, of which 89,1 million tons were transited through the Expanded Canal). The 2nd segment are the tanker ships (including LPG and LNG carriers, with total 105 million tons. The 3rd and 4th segments are bulk carriers (79 million tons) and vehicle carriers (47 million tons).
- In 2017, the main shipping routes through Panama Canal were AsiaEast Coast USA (34%), West Coast South America-East Coast USA (13%), West Coast South America-Europe (7%), West Coast Central America-East Coast USA (7%) and South America intercoastal (5%).
- In 2017, the Canal was used mainly by vessels leaving from USA (68,3% of the total tonnage), followed by China, Chile, Japan, Mexico and Colombia.
- It was estimated, that the Canal's expansion will save around 160 million tons of CO2 emissions during its first 10-year operational period.
- In 2017, of all transiting vessels, 53% were boxships, 28% LPG tankers, 10% LNG carriers, and the remaining transits were made by bulk cargo and car carriers and cruise ships.
- As future projects, the Canal has plans to concession a Ro-Ro terminal (for redistribution of vehicles, machinery and heavy equipment), as well as a huge logistics park (sized 1200 hectares / 12 km2) for the region's logistics services.
Panama Canal cruise ship transition cost (fees)
Following the Panama Canal Authority Board's recommendations, on April 28, 2015 Panama officially approved the proposal to revise the canal's toll structure.
- By the new structure, each transiting vessel's passage is segmented in different units of measurement:
- LNG carriers (liquefied natural gas) and LGP (gas) tankers' tolls are based on m3 (max capacity).
- Dry bulk carriers tolls are based on DWT (deadweight tonnage).
- Tankers' tolls are on PC/UMS tons and metric cargo tons.
- Container (boxships) tolls are based on TEU capacity (max containers).
- Cruise vessels' tolls are based on passenger capacity. They are levied based on PC/UMS or pax berths.
- A new segment was created to toll local tour ships.
- Cruise ships through Panamax Canal are charged USD 138 per berth. Cruise ships passing through the canal's new locks (post-Panamax) pay USD 148 per berth.
- When this decision was made, the new canal locks were 85% complete. The new toll system was implemented April 1, 2016.
- On May 7, 2008, the boxship MSC Fabienne paid a record highest Panamá Canal transit toll - USD 317,142. Currently, the canal's average transit cost is USD 54,000 per vessel.
Highlights: Gatun Lake, giant locks, Gaillard Cut
Panama Canal cruise terminal
A complete Panama canal transit is comprised of sailing through 3 sets of locks. Gatun Locks are located on the Caribbean side of Continental Divide while Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks are situated on the Pacific side. Vessels transiting the canal are being raised and lowered 85 ft in this 3-lock system. Other special highlights of Panama canal are the Gaillard cut and Gatun Lake. Gatun Lake is among the largest man-made lakes in the world covering 163 sq.miles. Gaillard Cut is 8 miles long channel built through solid rock that was the most difficult excavation in canal construction.
The new Panama Canal locks were officially inaugurated on June 26, 2016 following the completion of a 9-year (USD 5,25 billion) construction project. Originally scheduled for completion October 2014, a hundred years after it first opened, the canal's expansion provided an additional lane of shipping traffic through construction of 2 new locks (each with 3 slots), this way doubling the capacity of this unique waterway.
During new locks' opening, thousands of spectators gathered at Cocolí locks (outside Panama City) to watch the Chinese container ship "Cosco Shipping Panama" with its 9472 TEU containers becoming the ever first ship passing through the new locks.
During the canal's opening ceremony, there was a special guest section with around 3000 people, including delegations from different countries, business associates, heads of different authorities and organizations.
Following the new locks' opening, Egypt's Suez Canal (Panama’s main rival) lowered its transition tariffs to keep its shipping traffic.
Port Panama Canal cruise ship schedule shows timetable calendars of all arrival and departure dates by month. The port's schedule lists all ships (in links) with cruises going to or leaving from Panama Canal. To see the full itineraries (ports of call dates and arrival / departure times) and their lowest rates – just follow the corresponding ship-link.
The Panama Canal cruise port map is interactive. It shows the port's exact location, along with the real-time cruise ship traffic (if any) in its vicinity - today, and right now. By zooming-out you can see other cruise ship ports located near Panama Canal.
If you lose the Panama Canal location on the map, simply reload the page (also with F5 button). This feature is integrated with the CruiseMapper's cruise ship tracker tracking the vessels' current positions at sea and in ports.
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