Oct 26, 2018 - Early this morning, Island Princess passed under the Atlantic Bridge, the third and newest bridge to span the Panama Canal.
Soon after passing under the bridge, we enter the first of three locks (on the Atlantic side). The three locks will raise Island Princess 85 feet to the level of Gatun Lake and the Panama Canal. When the ship enters the first lock, electric "mules" are attached to the ship to pull and guide the ship through the locks. A Canal Pilot is on the bridge with the Captain to oversee the whole operation. In fact, the only time a Captain of a ship is not in command of his vessel is when it is transiting the locks of the Panama Canal.
Today, we are using the "old" locks which are still restricted to Panamax standards. These locks can handle ships up to 950 ft. in length and 106 ft. wide. There are some newer cruise ships (and freighters, tankers, etc.) that are too large to fit through these locks. Royal Princess, for example, is 126 ft. wide and 1,083 ft. long. She simply cannot fit into these locks. Fortunately, the Panama Canal Authority expansion project has added a second set of wider, longer and deeper locks. The new locks can handle ships up to 1,200 ft. long and 160 ft. wide. So, good news for Royal, Regal and Caribbean Princess!
Dr. Dean, our resident Destination Expert, provided commentary on the Panama Canal over the ship's PA system during the transit. Guests on the outer decks could hear the commentary and it was also broadcast over the closed circuit television system in guest cabins. He informed us that Island Princess has to pay $385,000 to the Panama Canal Authority to transit the locks today! Once we ascend into Gatun Lake, Island Princess deploys the anchor and we prepare for our shore excursion, "Agua Clara Locks and Kayaking in the Canal".
Excursions today require tendering to shore, and there are a lot of guests going ashore today. Princess has everyone divided into groups (1,2,3,4,5,6, etc.). We are also given numbered stickers to wear to indicate the shore excursion we have selected. As a matter of fact, guests are not allowed to go ashore if they are not on a ship's excursion . The process of getting this many people ashore in a short amount of time is no easy task. Princess has been doing this for a long time, so they know what works. There are long lines and large crowds, but it was managed well. We boarded the tender boat for the short ride to shore.
Once ashore, we are directed to a motor coach. As we board the vehicle, rain is beginning to fall. Yuck. Our first stop is at the Agua Clara Locks Visitor Center. By the time we arrive there, the rain is coming down pretty hard. We wonder how much fun kayaking in the rain will be.
The Agua Clara Locks are the result of the Panama Canal Expansion Project, the newest set of locks that can handle larger vessels. There is a great lookout point where you can watch these behemoth ships transit the locks.
There is a theater in the visitor center that shows a short movie explaining the expansion project and there is a small gift shop selling a variety of Panama Canal souvenirs. We spent about an hour at the visitor center before boarding the bus for the ride to the Melia Resort Panama Canal, the starting point for our kayak adventure. It is raining pretty hard when we arrive at the Melia and walk down the long walkway to where the kayaks are waiting for us in the water. Rickee brought a dry change of clothes to wear after the kayaking, but there was not really anywhere to store items to keep them dry. We were offered the opportunity to place our items in one of the boats at the dock that had a canvas cover, but all of the benches in the boat were already covered in rain. I put our camera into a Ziploc bag and took it with us in the kayak.
There were about 18 kayaks in our group and a guide led us around the lake. I sat in the back seat of the kayak with Rickee in front. That way she has no idea when I stop rowing to take photos. I just let her do all the work! The waters on the lake are very calm, in fact, it is almost like glass. This makes rowing much easier.
Our guide stops to explain the wildlife visible in the trees and foliage along the shores. We spot some Howler Monkeys in the trees just above us.
We spent about an hour-and-a-half kayaking around the lake, and to a couple of small islands on the lake to look for monkeys. About half way through the journey, the rain stopped and it became quite pleasant. Of course, we were already soaking wet by the time the rain stopped. Unfortunately, we were told by someone in the Shore Excursion department that we did not need to take a towel with us for this excursion, so we did not. At the end of the kayaking, Rickee's dry clothes that had been left in the boat were wet and smelled like gasoline, and I had no towel to use to dry off. Rickee used paper towels in the resort's bathroom to dry off. CruiseReport.com Tip: Take a towel with you from the ship if you book this excursion!
Overall, we enjoyed the excursion and felt like it was a good value at $89/per person. We board the coach for the short ride to the port of Colón where Island Princess is waiting for us. While we were on excursion, Island Princess went back through the Gatun locks to the Caribbean Sea and docked at Colón to retrieve guests. We are back onboard Island Princess by around 5pm.
Tomorrow, Island Princess will be in Puerto Limón, Costa Rica.