The 8th Wonders of the World

How the Panama Canal gives Dr. Phil Zeltman hope for mankind.

When I wrote about the seven modern Wonders and the seven ancient Wonders of the world in this blog, I explained that because of jealousy, rivalry or politics, the seven modern choices were not universally approved. The New7Wonders Foundation came up with the seven modern wonders of the world via a worldwide vote.

Yellowstone National Park, the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon and many others did not make the list, which is necessarily subjective. Each choice could be argued with. I suspect this is the reason why there are so many so-called “8th Wonders of the World."

The Panama Canal, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2014, is such a contender. It is truly an incredible engineering project, which I was fortunate to visit recently. Before the canal was built, if you wanted to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, you had to travel all around South America via its southernmost tip, the hazardous Cape Horn, for about a week. Now it takes about 12 hours to cross the 50-mile-long Panama Canal. The canal made the journey immensely safer and faster, thereby reducing costs 10-fold and cutting lost cargo and mortality. Common cargo today includes cars, food, electronics, fuel and metals.

France led the first attempt at digging a canal in 1881. Directed by Ferdinand de Lesseps of Suez Canal fame (the waterway in Egypt, connecting the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea), the Panama Canal project was stopped in 1894 because of bankruptcy, engineering challenges, horrifying work conditions, a hostile environment and high mortality. Over 20,000 people died from accidents, venomous snakes, insect and spider bites, and diseases such as yellow fever and malaria.

Twenty years later, through a bizarre arrangement, the U.S. took over the project and was granted the rights to build and administer the Panama Canal. Ten years and almost $375 million later ($9 billion in 2016 dollars), the canal was finished in 1914. The American presence led to political tensions that culminated in Panama taking over control of the canal in 2000.

As of this writing, the canal is actually a “double lane” with three sets of locks that enable ships to go up and down the mountainous terrain. What is fascinating is that most ships seem to be made to fit the width of the canal exactly. They seem to be traveling millimeters from each side of the lock.

Because of ever-increasing demand and ships of ever-increasing dimensions, the need for a wider canal has emerged. A third passageway, 40 percent longer and 60 percent wider than the two existing passages, is almost finished. The $5 billion project should open in 2016. Efforts will be made to preserve the incredible biodiversity of the fauna and flora, including monkeys, sloths and jaguars. You can’t slice a country in half with impunity.

The Panama Canal is an impressive round-the-clock operation. About 14,000 ships use the canal each year (i.e. about 38 each day). Believe it or not, the average toll is around $150,000. Bigger ships pay $200,000 to 250,000. Want to cut in line? Simply pay even more!

Why would cruise ships and commercial ships pay so much? Because it is immensely cheaper and faster than traveling around South America. For example, a ship traveling from San Francisco to New York City would save almost 8,000 miles by using the canal rather than cruising around South America and Cape Horn.

The Panama Canal is one of these man-made marvels that give you hope in mankind.

Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a board-certified veterinary surgeon and author. His traveling practice takes him all over Eastern Pennsylvania and Western New Jersey. You can visit his website at, and follow him at

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