My previous whale watching trips have been on boats. Or at any rate have involved oceans. But the only ocean on this trip, made on Friday Sept 26, was one made of sand out in the Libyan (Western) desert not far from the Fayoum valley in Egypt. And yet, we were indisputably on a whale watching trip.

Technically speaking, I should say we were on a whale bone (picture on left) watching trip for the whales in question are long dead. In fact, they lived long before humans even appeared on earth. Forty five million years ago or thereabouts. Evidently the entire region, possibly all of Egypt, was under water then, evidence for which lies in the treasure trove of marine fossils strewn about the desert. The same kind of evidence, in fact, on which Leonardo da Vinci deduced the possibility that the oceans had once covered parts of the earth that were now dry land. By far the most abundant of these fossils were the nummulites, fossilized remains of a marine protozoan named thus for their resemblance to little coins (nummulus in Latin). I was especially bucked to find both halves of a couple of such fossils protruding from the sand, and promptly clicked a photograph.  Here it is, with  the two intact larger  specimens in the foreground surrounded by much smaller nummulites as well as the shards of some mid sized to large ones.

While nummulites were by far the most abundant fossils out in the desert, there were other rarer specimens to be found. The beautiful tiny pointy shark teeth are certainly among the most exciting finds – both Elissa on a previous occasion and Dr. Vorg on this outing spotted specimens glinting at them from the sands and rocks. My personal discovery was a fossilized crab claw that I nearly kicked aside as a piece of dirt before scrutinizing it more closely to think there might be something to it. And there it was. Very distinctively shaped. Very cool.

Actually this was not my first trip out to this area although the combination of road conditions, driver competence and passenger demographic had made the trip  out to the site of whale discovery-and-display less than desirable on my excursion back in February along with the Bambahs and my Dad. When we went then, we stopped by the lake and visited the waterfall (truly and unusual site for the middle of the desert) and then, after one episode of the driver getting stuck in the sand, decided not to venture out to view the bones. And a good thing it turned out to be as I found out this time, since a three-mile hike in the desert would not have been good for too many of us. Especially the trek on an upward slope for a panoramic view of the valley! It was a spectacular view but whew! I could feel every breath burning through my lungs as I struggled uphill. This time round the trip was undertaken with a cast and crew assembled mostly by my friends Drew and Keli (a former student from my advanced class last term). Tiffany was a big hit as the designated “scientist” of the group – her range and depth of knowledge really astounds me at times.

Anyway Wadi al Hitan is a UNESCO designated World Hertiage site, the only one of Egypt’s seven sites that falls under the natural category. You can link to their information on this site here… Wadi al-Hitan. The coolest about the whales here in my opinion, is the fact that they represent an intermediate  phase when they returned to the water after having been landlubbers for a few intervening centuries (millennia?). Wonder if that portends anything for our (human) future as Earth’s exposed land slowly begins to submerge into the rising seas and melting glaciers? Would be interesting to be able to time travel and find out. But… that’s another story, for another post.