Dave Barry was right when he said, “The real threat to whales is whaling, which has endangered many whale species”. But whale extinction cannot be blamed totally on man when there is angry Mother Nature that has, in one instance, dried up a tropical sea that once covered an area in northern Egypt, now known as Wadi El Hitan.
It was once a valley of whales before a change in the geographical nature of the area turned it into a desert. Wadi El Hitan is now located in the governorate of Fayyoum and is considered one of the most important tourist attractions in the Upper Egyptian city.
You will be impressed by the large concentration of prehistoric fossils that date back to more than 40 million years ago. We know this would solicit raised eyebrows from many who could barely imagine life over the last thousand years. In this article, we will go deeper into the Whales Valley to bring you all the information about the evolution and extinction of whales, as well as what to do while on a visit to this extraordinary archaeological site.
Table of Contents
The Evolution of Whales
Fun fact: The ancestors of whales were four-legged creatures that adapted over millions of years to sea life before evolving from terrestrial mammals to fully aquatic whales. Whales are a perfect example of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The Extinction of Whales & the Geographical Shift of the Valley
After years of sedimentary effects spilt over into the area, rocks started to form, and whales went into extinction. They just died out, leaving behind fossilised remains that date back more than 40 million years ago.
This could give you an answer to why the skulls and bones of whales were found in this desert area.
Well, this is only natural since all of northern Egypt was once covered by sea. So, if you ask us where you can find whales in the desert, we will simply tell you in the Whales Valley.
The History of Wadi El Hitan
This place could be the oldest you can read about, dating back about 40 million years. You might wonder how on earth we could learn about the history of Wadi El Hitan, which is literally prehistory!
Scientists could find some answers from the fossils of archaic whales that were discovered in Wadi El Hitan. You might think it is geology that helped pop a light in the valley, and you are right in this. After all, we would not have gone that far in learning about a place that existed long before history itself did.
Based on scientific findings, Wadi El Hitan was once the home to many now-extinct marine creatures, such as crocodiles and whales, which existed at a time when most of modern Egypt, including the Western Desert, was immersed in the central Tethys Sea.
Over time, drastic geographical changes occurred, turning the once-marine area into a rocky landscape. All that was left of the whales were fossils, which were first discovered during a geological survey led by H. J. Beadnell in 1902.
But wait, there is more that came to the surface over a century later. In 2015, the fossil of the Basilosaurus was discovered in the Valley. This is the oldest intact fossil of one of the ancient marine monsters that is nearly 40 million years old, which is about the same age as Wadi El Hitan.
The Whales Valley: Rightly a UNESCO World Heritage Site
UNESCO made the right decision in 2005. Well, just imagine how awesome it is to name a stretch of 200 square kilometres in the Western Desert that was once the bed of the Central Tethys Sea and is now home to an archaeological treasure of well-preserved fossils of prehistoric whales a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This pathway in the middle of limestone hills also displays a collection of rare shark and turtle bones. What is unique about this place is that it groups about 1,500 marine fossil skeletons, some of which are 50 feet long.
This paleontological site in the city of Fayyoum is about 150 kilometres away from Cairo.
What to Do in Wadi El Hitan?
Wadi El Hitan has a lot to offer to its visitors. A day trip there will be such an unforgettable experience away from the bustling city life. A four-wheel driving tour would be an excellent choice to explore the place in the morning, and you might as well consider spending a fantastic night there. But as you try all such amusing activities in Wadi El Hitan, you should not miss a visit to its Fossils and Climate Change Museum.
Visit the Fossils & Climate Change Museum in Wadi El Hitan
Welcome to this half-buried museum that was designed in such a way as to maintain a cooler environment for the displayed fossils. The structure of the Fossils and Climate Change Museum was architected to fit into the desert landscape of the Valley seamlessly.
The underground museum is capped by domes, which are the only exposed above-earth parts. This sounds like the perfect design for a national park. Well, Wadi El Hitan is undoubtedly treated as one.
This earth-coloured museum features fossils of whales, sharks, crocodiles, and dolphins, not to mention a whole skeleton of a leopard. Also displayed in the museum are fossils of mangroves, watermelons and corals. All the fossils on display indicate that marine life once existed on this land.
Upon entering the museum, you will find a central exhibition space where the complete fossil of a male Basilosauris is displayed. This powerful whale is about 18 metres long, and its body has two tiny hind legs. It is considered the first archaic species to have developed hind limbs.
Fossil viewing should be your primary goal during the visit to Wadi El Hitan. So, make sure to get firsthand information about the site while you are physically there. The Fossils and Climate Change Museum in Wadi El Hitan is surely a must-see!
Go on a Guided Tour of Wadi El Hitan
A guided tour around Wadi El Hitan would be a good option. We highly recommend that you explore the area with a knowledgeable Fayyoumer for an ultimate experience. After all, who is better to give you insight into the geology and history of Wadi El Hitan than a local guide? A guide from Fayyoum will have all the true stories to tell you, so be prepared to do a lot of listening!
Go Hiking in Wadi El Hitan
It is time for some thrill! You cannot possibly be in Wadi El Hitan and not go on nature walks along trails that are mainly designed for desert hikes. Such hikes will be an excellent chance to watch the birds and enjoy this unique nature with its flora and fauna. It will be a different experience around such an unparalleled natural landscape.
Go Even Wilder and Consider Camping!
Who said Wadi El Hitan is only meant for day trips? Well, guess what? It gets even wilder at night. It would be a good idea to get close and personal with the magnificent desert landscape through a camping program.
Soak up all the wilderness of the place as you spend the night in Wadi El Hitan. Stargazing will fit in just perfectly in this scenic atmosphere. So, make sure to have your telescope or binoculars on you if you want to get a closer look at the stars and planets.
Wadi El Hitan Has It All!
Wadi El Hitan is a natural wonder in Egypt that will give you some good stories to tell and marvellous pictures to share. This place has all the aspects that would make your day and night activities so memorable. No wonder tourists keep coming in droves to this Valley!
To make the most of your trip to Wadi El Hitan, have all the permits needed for camping and researching ready, and do not forget that you are in the desert, and this entails that you have adequate water and sunscreen.
One message to all frequent travellers —don’t miss Wadi El Hitan. For a closer look, you can check out this blog about Fayyoum, the city where Wadi El Hitan is. It would also be great if you looked at reviews about the place before you go. For us, we’ll be waiting to hear about your own experience in Wadi El Hitan.