By Nick Sirio, Gabriella Canal and Mira Shah, Galapagos Summer Abroad Program

Shortly before 5 p.m., the cruise ship Ocean Dream entered the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal. Sixteen of us from the University of Miami had been waiting hours for the ship to make its move. We were on the first leg of a three-week long summer abroad study program focused on the Galapagos Islands with stops in Panama and in Guayaquil, the biggest city in Ecuador.

We first saw the Ocean Dream in the far distance, a white, blocky structure more like a condo or an office tower than a boat. It inched toward us near the Pacific Ocean side of the nearly 50-mile-long, man-made canal. At about four o’clock, a drenching rain settled over us. Visibility fell to no more than 100 yards and the ship slowed it’s already slow pace.

The skies cleared and soon the nearly 37,000-ton cruise ship was at the mouth of the locks. It moved inside one of the sets of narrow channels or locks that operate like hydraulic elevators, raising and lowering water levels to enable ships to make the passage between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Workers opened the drains to let the water level fall, and the ships gradually sank in the steel and concrete channel. When the water in both sides of the lock had reached the same height, the gates opened and the ship motored on toward the Pacific on its own power.

Most of the drama took place after 5 p.m.

On most days, the Panama Canal Authority shuts down the Miraflores observation area with its museum, documentary movie theater, gift shop and restaurants promptly at 5. But during our visit, the authorities let us and the 100 or so others who were visiting the Canal that afternoon stay and watch the transit of the cruise ship for nearly an hour beyond the regular closing time. It felt like we were being rewarded for waiting for much of the afternoon to see how the Canal works.  Derrick Torrero, a security guard, said that in his six years of working at the Canal, he had never seen the authorities let visitors stay late. “Never before,” Torrero said.

The Panama Canal was not quite what some of the University of Miami students had imagined. “It’s thinner than I expected,” said Steve Elenberg, a senior in media management from Potomac, Md., Eric Gayer, a senior who comes from Miami and is majoring in psychology, said the Panama Canal “is a lot smaller than I expected.”

Carolina Xavier, a sophomore in advertising from Rio de Janeiro, said that spending time in the museum helped her understand the history of the Canal and how it works. “It had a lot of information,” she said. “It was visual. I saw how it was built and how it works. When the ship started going through the Canal I understood what was happening.”

The Panama Canal is big business. It is the most important sector of the Panamanian economy, with annual revenues of more than $1.8 billion. Banking and duty free sales are other big contributors to Panama’s economy.

Beginning in 1963, the Canal started around-the-clock operations. The Canal opened for shipping in 1914, and in 2014 it is celebrating its 100th anniversary. The road approaching the Canal was lined with flagpoles with purple banners heralding the centennial. The authorities say that by September 2010 more than a million ships from all over the globe had passed through the Canal.

The Panama Canal consists of three lakes and three long, narrow sets of locks. Each of the three sets of locks is 110 feet-wide, 1,050 feet-long, and 41.2 feet-deep. Thirty-five to 40 ships move through the Canal daily. The Canal is being enlarged to handle much larger ships at a cost of more than $5 billion. Canal officials say they expect the expanded Canal to open toward the end of 2015. The new locks will be 180 feet-wide and 1,400 feet-long and 60 feet-deep The Canal can handle ships of up to 80,000 tons. With the expansion, its capacity will rise to ships of 120,000 tons.

The Panama Canal was designed to sharply reduce the sailing time between Asia on one side and the United States and Europe on the other. The French first started digging a Panama Canal in the late 1800s. They abandoned the project, and the United States took over in 1904. Ten years later, the first ship sailed through the Canal.

The water in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans is at about the same level on both sides of the Isthmus of Panama. But ships cannot simply sail across Panama because, moving toward the center of the Isthmus, the land rises. The solution and the genius of the Panama Canal engineers was to build a combination of locks and lakes to raise and lower ships.

Soon after the Ocean Dream entered the Miraflores Locks, it was joined in the second of the two narrow, rectangular locks by the tanker, STI Fontvielle. Just out of sight behind the Ocean Dream and the STI Fontvielle were a tanker and two automobile transport ships from Japan. After a quiet afternoon, it was beginning to look like a busy evening.

The passage of the Ocean Dream through the Canal was a spell-binding experience for the University of Miami students and the others on the observation deck. When the ship eased out of the locks toward the Pacific, the students and the others broke into applause. Jane McKee, a junior from Chappaqua, N.Y., a suburb of New York City, studying music and entertainment business, was one of those who had expected the Canal to be bigger. She also thought ships would move through the Canal faster. “It was not really what I expected,” she said. “But it was definitely worth the wait.” 

The three-week, multimedia writing and acoustic ecology course in the Galapagos Islands ran May 12-31. Led by University of Miami Communication Professor Joseph B. Treaster, a longtime correspondent with The New York Times, and Professor Colby Leider, the director of  the Frost School of Music’s Department of Engineering, the program is designed to develop cultural and environmental knowledge and hone critical thinking, writing,  and digital skills essential for any career. 

This story and other journalism produced on the UM Galapagos Summer Abroad program may be found on The Miami Planet.