Gatun Lake, Panama

Lake Locations:

Panama - Colon Province -

Also known as:  Lake Gatun, Lago Gatun

Gatun Lake, in the Colon Province of the Republic of Panama, constitutes nearly half of the Panama Canal waterway. Created by damming the Chagres River, the man-made lake is a tropical paradise. Visitors floating one of the many peaceful inlets and bays surrounded by wildlife would never realize the lake is one of the world’s busiest water routes or that the many islands are actually former mountaintops.

The strategic significance of the Isthmus of Panama was realized as early as the Spanish Conquest in the 1500’s; less than 50 miles separate the Caribbean Sea from the Pacific Ocean at this point. The French began building a canal in the late 1800’s but found the challenge too difficult. Because Panama had become an important exporter of coffee and other products, the French first built the Panama Railway across the isthmus and began excavating for the planned canal. After several years of work and the deaths of an estimated 21,000 workers, the French abandoned the effort to the Americans, who completed the project. The successful difference in methodology was the plan for Gatun Lake, and the lake itself made the Panama Canal possible.

One problem with a simple canal without locks, as planned by the French, was the 19-foot difference in water levels between the Caribbean and the Pacific Oceans. The major problem was the interior highland mountains, including the Continental Divide. By damming the Chagres River, the entire valley was flooded to create a lake deep enough to limit the channels that had to be cut through the rock. The massive lake also provides the huge amount of water needed to operate the locks leading down to the Caribbean Sea, six miles away. A gigantic dam was built between two mountains, 8,400 feet long and a half-mile wide at the base. The entire valley of mahogany forest was flooded to create Gatun Lake. At the time it was built, Lake Gatun was the largest man-made lake in the world — it measures about the size of Lake Geneva, Switzerland. Millions of tons of cargo travel through the Panama Canal every year, saving thousands of miles over the former journey around Cape Horn. However, the completion of the canal came at great cost, as an estimated 27,000 laborers lost their lives to accident, malaria and various tropical diseases.

Because there is almost no rain during the dry season, Gatun Lake stores enough fresh water to release the needed 52 million gallons each time a ship traverses the locks with little appreciable variation in water level. During the dry season, water levels may drop as much as five feet from the monsoon levels. The Gatun Dam provides hydroelectric power for operation of all canal locks and activities, using only 25% of the power generated. Now that Panama has control over the system, the government sells the rest of the excess to villages and private businesses.

The rising water isolated a variety of wildlife on the many islands in the lake. One island, Barro Colorado, is home to one of the Smithsonian’s research centers. Guacha Island, a wildlife sanctuary, lies in the center of the lake. Islas Brujas and Islas Tigres are a primate refuge with no visitors allowed. Other islands are available via guided tours or self-exploration to those properly prepared for hiking. The lake itself is home to crocodiles, manatees, and peacock bass. The latter, an accidentally introduced species from South America, has produced a thriving sport fishing industry. Fishermen from all over the world come to Gatun Lake to pursue the voracious and aggressive brightly-marked bass. Tilapia, perch, tarpon, and the occasional snook can also be caught in these waters.

A sizeable tourist industry has grown up around yachting, nature tours and fishing excursions. The lakeshore is home to many marinas and yacht-focused businesses. Vacation rentals have become plentiful as visitors realize the advantages of spending a vacation in such an exotic location only two hours by air from Miami. Condos and new housing developments along the shore guarantee there are excellent real estate opportunities at Gatun Lake. The area has become a popular retirement location for upper middle-income retirees.

House boating is a popular activity on the bays and backwaters far from the shipping lanes. Kayaking and canoeing among the many small islands is a favorite way to view the several species of primates, sloths and the many water birds. The Village of Gamboa is the center of Gatun Lake tours and expeditions; a variety of tours may be arranged, including wildlife or birding. Some tours offer a close-up view of the narrow canal cut through the interior mountains alongside ocean-going freighters and cruise ships. One popular hiking route along the shore is the old Pipeline Road, built by the military during World War II to protect the pipeline that was built but never used for emergency war fueling.

South of Gatun Lake and east of the Panama Canal, 55,000-acre Soberania National Park holds the Canopy Tower. From the top of Semaforo Hill, the tower allows visitors to watch wildlife from above and exposes an overview of the local fauna. A canopy tram provides treetop-level wildlife and bird viewing. The park is a world-famous bird-watching location, as it is home to 525 species of birds including the black hawk-eagle, black-cheeked woodpecker, black-breasted puffbird, broad-billed motmot, blue cotinga, purple-throated fruitcrow, masked tytira, violaceous trogon, fasciated antshrike, shining honeycreeper, and many winter migrants. Also calling Soberania home are 105 species of mammals (some of which are endangered species) including tamandua, large felines, two and three-toed sloth, four species of monkeys, agouti and 59 native plant species in four life zones. Eco-tours are extremely popular and much research is being performed in the lightly-settled rain forest. One interest of ecologists is the phenomena provided by the explosive population growth of the peacock bass. Their proliferation is changing the trophic state of areas of the lake due to heavy predation.

A Gatun Lake vacation is surprisingly inexpensive and a very different experience than the casinos and tourist-oriented activities in much of the Caribbean. Wake to the voices of howler monkeys and the calls of exotic birds. Cruise the lazy inlets along Gatun Lake. Its easy to get to by air and the visitor will want to come back often. Visit soon to start your new adventure!

Things to do at Gatun Lake

  • Vacation Rentals
  • Fishing
  • Boating
  • Canoeing
  • Kayaking
  • Hiking
  • Wildlife Viewing
  • Birding
  • National Park
  • Casino Gambling

Fish species found at Gatun Lake

  • Bass
  • Peacock Bass
  • Perch
  • Snook
  • Tilapia

Gatun Lake Photo Gallery

Gatun Lake Statistics & Helpful Links

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Lake Type: Artificial Reservoir, Dammed

Water Level Control: Panama Canal Authority

Surface Area: 104,320 acres

Shoreline Length: 1,100 miles

Normal Elevation (Full Pond): 85 feet

Minimum Elevation (Min Pond): 79 feet

Maximum Elevation (Max Pond): 87 feet

Maximum Depth: 85 feet

Completion Year: 1913

Drainage Area: 1,320 sq. miles

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Trophic State | LakeLubbers

Trophic State measures the level of algae and nutrients in a lake.

An oligotrophic lake is very clear (blue in color) and does not support much plant or fish life. A hyper-oligotrophic lake is the clearest of all lakes, and is nearly devoid of plants and fish.

A mesotrophic lake is slightly green and supports a moderate degree of plant and fish life. A lake's most desired trophic state is generally this mid-point - the mesotrophic state.

A eutrophic lake is somewhat murky and supports a large amount of plant and fish life. A hypereutrophic lake is clouded with algae, plant life, and fish life. A eutrophic or hyper-eutrophic lake can be difficult to navigate by boat - and is often an unpleasant place to swim.

The use of phosphorus-rich and nitrogen-rich fertilizer on lawns and golf courses surrounding a lake can cause it to become eutrophic or hypereutrophic.


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Catchment or Drainage Area | LakeLubbers

This is the surrounding area that drains into a lake, including land, rivers and their tributaries. This is also known as the lake's "catchment basin".

Small lakes at the highest peaks of mountains have small drainage areas. The world's oceans have the largest drainage areas.


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Lake-Area Population | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated number of people who live in a house with a view of a lake, plus those who self-describe the lake as their home, for example: "I live at Smith Mountain Lake."


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Water Residence Time | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated time that it takes for an amount of water equal to the entire volume of a lake to flow out of - or evaporate from - the lake.

Residence Time can be as short as a few days for fast-flowing small lakes, and can exceed 100 years for slow-flowing large lakes.


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Completion Year | LakeLubbers

This is the year that a reservoir was first filled to the reservoir's normal elevation - or the year that a natural lake was first dammed. A large reservoir can take more than a year to fill after its dam is first closed.

The Grand Anicut in southern India is generally considered the world's oldest dam that still operates. Grand Anicut was constructed in the second century BC. It now impounds an irrigation network that includes roughly one million acres.

You can find many of the the world's newest reservoirs on LakeLubbers. Many of the world's oldest reservoirs appear on the last page of that list.


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Water Volume | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated volume of water that a lake contains -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. By this measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal.

You can find many of the the world's largest lakes (by water volume) on LakeLubbers.

Water Volume can be measured in acre-feet, in cubic miles, or in cubic kilometers. One acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre (43,560 square feet) to a depth of one foot. One cubic mile equals 3,379,200 acre-feet. One cubic kilometer equals 810,713 acre-feet.

1 acre-foot is equal to 325,851 US gallons. Siberia's Lake Baikal contains about 6,276,367,740,000,000 gallons of freshwater - nearly 1 million gallons for every living person on earth.

The other - and more widely used - measure of a lake's size is the lake's surface acreage. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is North America's Lake Superior.


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Maximum Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated greatest depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. The world's deepest lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal; that lake's maximum depth is estimated at 5,314 feet.

You can find many of the the world's deepest lakes on LakeLubbers. If you select the last page of that list, you will find the (maximum depth of) the shallowest lakes in our database.


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Average Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated average depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. If the water volume and surface area of a lake are known, an estimate of the lake's average depth can be calculated:

Water volume ÷ Surface Area = Average Depth

Example: 1,000,000 acre-feet ÷ 20,000 acres = 50 feet average depth


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Maximum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's highest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can occur during flooding. A lake's highest possible maximum elevation is usually the top of the lake's dam or spillway.

At lakes that include residential development, government regulations usually forbid the construction of homes below a lake's maximum elevation.


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Minimum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's lowest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can be reasonably expected to occur. Low lake levels can occur due to deliberate seasonal draw downs for irrigation or impending snow melt, reduced water inflows, drought and evaporation, residential or commercial water demands, and hydropower generation.

Some lakes' minimum and maximum elevations are virtually the same. Lakes that generate hydropower may vary by several feet - according to power demand. Lakes whose primary purpose is to prevent flooding can seasonally vary by 100 feet or more.

When some lakes reach their minimum elevation, their boat ramps may not be long enough to permit boat access - and boats docked on shallow parts of the lake may end up on dry ground. In those cases, kayakers and shore-based anglers may be among the few happy recreational users of the lake.


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Normal Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's normal water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level. For a reservoir, this water level is also known as "full pond" or "full pool".

You can find many of the world's highest-elevated lakes on LakeLubbers. Lakes with the lowest elevations (known by LakeLubbers) are shown on the final page of that list.


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Shoreline Length | LakeLubbers

This is the length of the exterior shoreline around a lake - measured at the lake's normal elevation. The shoreline length can be considerably shorter or longer when lake water levels are lower or higher than normal.

A lake with many coves has a much longer shoreline than a lake of similar surface area that is nearly circular in shape.

When known, the shoreline miles that we report in our statistics include only the lake's exterior shoreline, and exclude the shorelines of islands located within a lake's boundaries. In lakes with many islands, those islands' combined shorelines may exceed a lake's exterior shoreline.

You can find many of the world's longest-shoreline lakes on Lakelubbers.


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Surface Area | LakeLubbers

This is the area (acreage, square kilometers, etc.) of the top surface area of a lake - measured at a lake's normal elevation. The surface area can be considerably smaller or larger when lake levels are lower or higher than normal. North America's Lake Superior is the world's largest freshwater lake by this measure.

The other measure of a lake's size is the lake's water volume. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Lake Baikal in Siberia.

You can find many of the world's largest lakes (acres) on Lakelubbers. There is no widely-accepted minimum surface area that defines a lake. What Lakelubbers describes as a lake, you might call a pond. The smallest lake that Lakelubbers currently includes is Hawaii's 2-acre Lake Waiau.


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Water Level Control | LakeLubbers

This is the organization that controls water releases or outflows from the lake or reservoir. In the USA, this is often the US Army Corps of Engineers, a power company, a municipal water system, an irrigation district, or a paper manufacturing company. In the case of private or gated lakes, a homeowners' association may be the lake's controlling authority.

Many lakes cross borders, including North America's Great Lakes. The control of such lakes and their coveted freshwater may be amicably shared - or hotly disputed.

"Water wars" continue at many lakes as growing populations and crop irrigation needs compete for the freshwater that lakes contain.


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Lake Type | LakeLubbers

There are 3 basic types of lakes that are currently included on LakeLubbers. 2 types may be dammed or not dammed, producing 5 classifications.

- A Reservoir is a man-made freshwater lake that is usually created by damming rivers.

- A Natural Freshwater Lake occurs naturally - often by glacial activity - and has a salinity of less than 30 parts per thousand. It may be dammed to produce electricity or for other reasons.

- A Natural Saltwater Lake occurs naturally and has a salinity of more than 30 parts per thousand (ppt). It may be dammed.

"Brackish" water may be categorized as freshwater or saltwater, depending on its salt content (salinity). Oligohaline water has less than 15 ppt of salt. Mesohaline water has 15-29 ppt. Polyhaline has 30-335 ppt.


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