Think to visit 5000-year-old tombs and temples is peering into antiquity? Try 40 million-year-old whales! Wadi Al-Hitan, 150 miles southwest of Cairo, is a UNESCO heritage site, remnants of the ancient Tethys Sea when Egypt was covered with water and sea cows, crocodiles, and turtles swam. But its greatest claim to fame is the glimpse it provides into the evolution of whales.
Fifty million years ago, whale ancestors walked on land while also hunting in the shallow seas, much like sea otters do today. Over the next 10 million years, archeocetes (ancient whales) evolved a more marine lifestyle. In 2016 the Wadi Al Hitan Fossil and Climate Change Museum opened with excellent exhibits in English and Arabic describing the environmental changes over time in the area and how land-based mammals evolved to return to the sea. But the fossils are not just in display cases. Entire skeletons of Basilosaurus and Dorudon that still retain small hind limbs not seen in modern whales are on display along a walking trail littered with invertebrate fossils and bone bits.
Wadi Al-Hitan receives only about 1000 visitors a year. Access is via 4 WD vehicles over a sand blown road. Our driver enjoyed giving us an extra thrill going off-road at times to navigate sand dunes and showing off his vehicular acrobatics.
The newly completed Wadi Hitan Fossil and Climate Change Museum features the largest intact “Basilosaurus isis” whale fossil and a unique collection of fossils found nowhere else in the world. Wadi El Hitan was transformed through climate change from sea to a hyper-arid desert through millions of years. The museum aims to educate the public about climate change and raise awareness about preventing its negative effects on the environment and people.
The museum has been built by the United Nations Development Programme in partnership with the Government of Egypt and the financial support of the Government of Italy within a collective set of actions being implemented to support the conservation of protected areas, promote eco-tourism, and sustainable development links environment protection and sustainable use of natural resources.