Gatun Lake (Spanish: Lago Gatún) is a large freshwater artificial lake to the south of Colón, Panama. At approximately 26 m (85 ft) above sea level, it forms a major part of the Panama Canal, carrying ships 33 km (21 mi) of their transit across the Isthmus of Panama. Gatun Lake was "officially" created June 27, 1913 when the gates of the spillway at Gatun Dam were finally closed, and the world waited for the lake to fill. The water level was about 14.6 m (48 ft) above sea level and was expected to fill to operating levels in the next six months.[2]

Gatun Lake
Gatun Lake.jpg
Ships follow marked channels
among the hilltop islands.
Gatun Lake is located in Panama
Gatun Lake
Gatun Lake
Coordinates9°11′N 79°53′W / 9.183°N 79.883°W / 9.183; -79.883
Typeartificial lake
Primary inflowsChagres River
Basin countriesPanama
Surface area425 km2 (164 sq mi)
Water volume5.2 km3 (4,200,000 acre⋅ft)[1]
Surface elevation26 m (85 ft)
IslandsIsla Barro Colorado, Isla Gatun, Isla Falta Calzado, Isla Tres Perros


Created in 1913 by damming the Chagres River, Gatun Lake is a key part of the Panama Canal, providing the millions of litres of water necessary to operate its locks each time a ship passes through.[3] At time of formation, Gatun Lake was the largest human-made lake in the world. The impassable rainforest around the lake has been the best defense of the Panama Canal. Today these areas remain practically unscathed by human interference and are one of the few accessible areas where various native Central American animal and plant species can be observed undisturbed in their natural habitat.

Supplementary benefitsEdit

The largest island on Gatun Lake is Barro Colorado Island. It was established for scientific study when the lake was formed, and is operated by the Smithsonian Institution. Many important scientific and biological discoveries of the tropical animal and plant kingdom originated here. Gatun Lake covers about 470 km2 (180 sq mi), a vast tropical ecological zone and part of the Atlantic Forest Corridor. Ecotourism on the lake has become an industry for Panamanians.

Gatun Lake also provides drinking water for Panama City and Colón.


Angling is one of the primary recreational pursuits on Gatun Lake. Non-native peacock bass were introduced by accident to Gatun Lake around 1967[4] by a local businessman,[5] and have since flourished to become the dominant angling game fish in Gatun Lake. Locally called Sargento and believed to be the species Cichla pleiozona,[6] these peacock bass originate from the Amazon, Rio Negro, and Orinoco river basins. Although considered a premier game fish in their natural range, the introduction of the peacock bass to Gatun Lake had devastating effects on the local species. According to a report by the Smithsonian, native fish populations in the lake still have not recovered.[7] Only one quarter the number of native fish species were found in a sampling taken in 2016.[8]


  1. ^ Hulman, Lewis G. (1972). "System Relationships a Panama Canal Water Supply Study". Water Resources Research. 8 (3): 774–778. doi:10.1029/WR008i003p00769. hdl:2027/uc1.31210024723247.
  2. ^ "Canal Virtually Finished- July 14,1913". Boston Evening Transcript. 1913. Retrieved 10 December 2022.
  3. ^ "Panama Canal Open- Aug 20, 1914". Meriden Weekly Republican. 1914. Retrieved 16 December 2022.
  4. ^ Zaret, Thomas M.; Paine, R.T. (2 November 1973). "Species Introduction in a Tropical Lake". Science. 182 (4111): 449–455. Bibcode:1973Sci...182..449Z. doi:10.1126/science.182.4111.449. PMID 17832455. S2CID 19268817.
  5. ^ "Peacock Bass: Fun to Catch, Fine to Eat". Panama Canal Review: 11. February 1971. Retrieved 2012-04-30.
  6. ^ "Gatun Lake Peacock Bass Fishing Charters". Archived from the original on July 22, 2010. Retrieved 2012-04-30.
  7. ^ "Comentario Sobre El Pez Pavon Estrella- Commentary on the Star Pavin Fish Nov. 20m 1974". La Nacion. 1974. Retrieved 18 December 2022.
  8. ^ "Peacock bass invasion Had devastating, long-term impact on Panama's Fish". Simthsonian Beth King. 2016. Retrieved 15 December 2022.