When you think of a desert, you conjure up images of hot and dry weather, sand dunes, and strong sun rays, right? Can you imagine water in the scenario? Let alone an ocean? If you ever visit the Western desert of Egypt, you will come across sand dunes, and rust-coloured sand and dry rock formations stretching as far as the eyes can see. You won't spot water here. But it was there once upon a time. Lots of it. Millions of years ago, one of the driest regions in the world was covered by a vast sea. And swimming in it were a host of prehistoric creatures. The fossils were discovered when they emerged from the shifting sands and stunned the world.
The area is now known as Wadi Al-Hitan or Whale Valley named after the invaluable fossil remains of the earliest, and now extinct, suborder of whales, the Archaeoceti. It has been declared as a Unesco World Heritage Site. If paleontology and the story of our evolution excites you, you must make a visit here. The fossils are an important link in one of the major stories of evolution. They are proof that whales once walked from land into the oceans. They show the emergence of the whale as an ocean-going mammal from a previous life as a land-based animal.
Cetaceans (like whales, dolphins, porpoises) are said to have evolved from a land-based creature with legs. Their legs became redundant after they evolved over millions of years as seafaring creatures. The Whale Valley's Archaeoceti skeletons have their legs intact. The fossils show the youngest archaeocetes in the last stages of losing their hind limbs. It's been a great mystery to scientists, how such a huge environmental transformation had happened.
This place is a treasure for people studying evolution because of the number, concentration and quality of the fossils as well as the accessibility of the location. It makes it possible to reconstruct the environmental conditions of the time.
It is a protected area. The Unesco site states that a buffer zone has been identified to protect the property from wider threats, including from visitation and traffic. No vehicle access is permitted, whilst zones provide for well-controlled eco-tourism in part of the property, whilst maintaining areas for research and studies.