Barro Colorado Island and the Gatun Locks

Dec 14, 2019 - National Geographic Quest

Barro Colorado is a 4,000-acre island in the middle of the Panama Canal, almost six times the size of Central Park in New York. The island is at the heart of a wildlife sanctuary that includes surrounding peninsulas projecting into the famous waterway. The island is home to an almost intact tropical forest with literally thousands of species of animals and plants. It is by far the most intensely researched tropical forest on the planet; the field station was established in 1928 and over the decades, thousands of tropical biologists of all disciplines have done work here at the STRI (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute). In fact, a lot of our textbook knowledge about tropical rain forests comes from this island.

Out we went this morning exploring the island in two ways: on foot or in our trusty Zodiacs. We were rewarded in many ways. Great photos, great stories and sightings of incredible wildlife, forest birds and mammals and lake dwellers including crocodiles, egrets, anhingas, toucans, moneys, agoutis and even an elusive kinkajou.

Later today after lunch, we got to do something that very few of the ships get to do, a local-boat ride into Gatun Lake, to the port of Gamboa and a bus ride to the Gamboa Aerial Tram. With a 100-foot solid steel and wood structure, its observation tower offers panoramic views of the Chagres River, the Emberá indigenous community and much of the Soberania National Park. We got to see our last animals on the way: howler monkeys, white throated capuchin monkeys, Geoffey’s tamarin and even a very young two-toed sloth.

We finished our journey crossing the last set of locks to enter the Caribbean Sea. The Gatún Locks are set along the Caribbean side of Panama to the west of Colón. These massive locks are the largest in the Panama Canal. As you watch ships pass through the locks’ chambers, it is easy to understand why the Panama Canal is one of the seven manmade wonders of the world. 

The Gatún Locks are a mile (1.5 kilometers) long and raise ships about 85 feet (26 meters). Each of Gatún’s three locks are 1,000 ft. (305 meters) by 112 ft. (34 meters). Just the size of them is mind-blowing: three sets of double lock chambers stretch on for 3km, with room to spare each chamber could have accommodated the Titanic.

With this incredible day in our Central American journey, this diverse and interesting trip came to an end, as we watched the sun setting in the horizon, pondering on which will be our next explorations adventure.

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About the Author

Isabel Salas Vindas


Isa Salas is a Costa Rica born biologist, who loves her country and teaching about it.  Known for her professionalism and experience in the field of animal behavior, Isa earned her master's degree in biology from the University of Costa Rica, where she also engaged in research for the chemistry and biology departments. Isa has carried out specialized projects on mantled howler monkeys for Costa Rica’s National Institute of Biodiversity (INBio), and is one of the country’s experts on howler monkey sexual and social behavior. 

About the Photographer

José Calvo

Naturalist/Certified Photo Instructor

Nicknamed “Indio” (Indian) because of his powers of observation and quiet nature, José has almost two decades of experience working as a naturalist and photography guide; as well as being recognized as an expert birder and nature photographer in Costa Rica. Costa Rica is rich in biodiversity — over 893 bird species have been recorded in the country. Since very young José spent all of his free time in the outdoors in the forest, where he soon fell in love with the birds. He particularly enjoys listening to their calls, and watching their behavior. Oddly enough, another one of Jose’s passions is science and technology, and because of this, he was among the first in Costa Rica to experiment with digital photography. As the technology quickly improved so did his love for it.  He truly believes that nature photography is the perfect combination of both of his passions.

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