Our observations, the first direct evidence of diet in Basilosaurus isis, confirm a predator-prey relationship of the two most frequently found fossil whales in Wadi Al-Hitan […] Little is known about whales as apex predators through much of the Cenozoic era, and whales as apex predators deserve more attention than they have received.

-M. Voss, et al. (2019). Stomach contents of the archaeocete Basilosaurus isis: Apex predator in oceans of the late Eocene. PLoS One. 2019; 14(1): e0209021.

We were digging up the ocean. We were sweating and in danger. We were working the Valley of Whales, though the name seemed a cruel joke with the dust in our mouths and the sun searing our eyes, a hundred and ten degrees on the mild days. We were doing good work. At least I thought so at the time.

We weathered the elements as few can. Our team was handpicked by myself and my co-chair, Dr. Helen Abushaaban, and each phase of the excavation was carried out on meticulous schedules, with shifts optimized to maximize ground coverage while averting heatstroke, heat exhaustion, dehydration, and regular exhaustion. We were after fossils and rock cores, simple data collection really. There was nothing in our syllabus beyond preparation of samples for the Department of Geology in Athens. It’s not unfair to suggest we got carried away. I don’t mean that about Helen in particular, mind you. We all had the fever by the time it was done.

We dug for twenty-five days and then we found the cave.

It started with a tailbone. Wādī al-Ḥītān is famous for its abundance of whale fossils, owing to the great Tethys Sea which flooded the Sahara eons ago. When Helen told me we’d struck bone I sprung from my tent and rushed into the blazing sun toward the site. We were working a yardang of windswept stone, eroded away over thousands of years, its layers a visual timeline of geologic history, with the tail wagging right around fifty million years ago. I shared in the heat-stupid grins of our undergrad diggers, that base realization that the absurd and arduous task we’d assigned ourselves wasn’t for nothing. The tail turned out to be an imposing specimen, a seventeen-foot Dorudon of the Paleogene, the sort of animal that can reasonably be said to have inherited the Earth from the dinosaurs. We dug on. We broke through the crag until the tail had a ribcage. It was the effort to unearth the skull that released the cool air–I felt it on my cheeks myself, having joined the digging effort out of sheer enthusiasm. A pickaxe struck the lime and in an avalanche of sand the cave was revealed.

It’s hard to describe the elation I felt that evening. A cave, a portal between worlds, between here and pasts unknown. I remember drinks with Helen that night in my tent where we guessed at what we’d find in there. Complete specimens, she said. No, specimen clusters! I countered. Predator-prey pairs, confirming and falsifying entire theories of paleoecology. I remember Helen’s wine-red smirk then. A new species, she said. We’re going to put our names in textbooks.

The biologist created problems. Khalaf was his name, an Egyptian with a phenomenal list of publications on Saharan flora, but seemingly zero field experience. Khalaf found shrubs. There were maybe a dozen green leaves between the lot of them, their shoots diminutive and pitiful against the great masses of white and red earth that stretched beyond all sight in that place. But they were close enough to the entrance to the cave that Khalaf felt them worthy of preservation for the purposes of future study. He rambled incoherently about microclimates and evapotranspiration, he insisted that any further excavation of the cave be done in such a way that not a single grain of dust might tarnish his precious shrubs. I don’t know why we even had him with us. It wasn’t a biological expedition. Helen seemed to like him. No idea. 

The cave was deeper and darker than we could have imagined. The hole we made upon removing the whale’s skeleton revealed a steep downward slope which opened into a sizable chamber about twenty feet down. I entered with Helen and three undergrads and for several minutes we simply stood with our flashlights and looked. We saw cracks and crevasses, popcorn rock and stalacmites, and yes, without applying so much as a chisel, we saw whales. The specimen who revealed that place had only been the beginning of an entire pod, an ecosystem, a self-contained natural history. The walls were embossed with teeth and weathered digits, mandibles and vertebrae, faded forms of beasts nearly sixty feet from tooth to tail. There were fishbones, too, and the weird spirals of mollusks, and stains of soft tissue to be identified in the laboratory. An entire world there, lost and now lived in again. We stood in that cavern and tried to come to terms with all we’d found. We slackened our flashlights and laughed.

We explored some. In a corner of the cave we found drawings. Crude petroglyphs depicting vaguely familiar predynastic forms: stick figures, reeds, fish. This was rather staggering, as the cave entrance had been completely sealed until now. But we were not the first people to set foot here. 

I believe it was one of the undergrads, a Swede, who pointed out the size and position of the “fish” depicted. They were many times the size of the “people,” and swam above their heads as if careening through the sky. Whales, I realized. Whales in the clouds. The people who’d found shelter in this cave thousands of years ago had known whales, despite living hundreds of miles from the sea. Had they found in the bones a thing to study, to worship? Had they advanced knowledge of paleontology, or was something stranger at play, all those ages ago?

Manic with excitement, I devised a plan for the dig, to begin first thing in the morning. Excavations here, there, everywhere. Tags and catalogs in improvised procedures. With our current manpower, and accounting for Khalaf’s meddling, I figured we could dig out enough to fill our trucks in about two weeks. It would secure a decade of funding, minimum, for this chamber alone. And there were many more channels to follow, where cold wind beckoned from fissures in the shadows. We’d have to contact a spelunking team. (I decided to hold off on calling in the archaeologists for now, in case preserving the petroglyphs became a barrier to getting the whales out of the rock, as with Khalaf and his weeds).

With the undergrads dismissed I remained there with Helen. We sat on the cold stone ground and rejoiced in muted tones. We watched as the entrance morphed from harsh white to sundown pink to a dim blue glow. We sat with our whales, with our pictures of whales, with one another. We drank from my flask. We are both married. She shut off the flashlight first, not that it matters, and she opened herself in some archaic crazed way. She laid me down like a landmass, she flowed on me like a sea. She whispered to me in Arabic or some older tongue. We melded our sweat in that cold cavern air and the whales watched. I buried my gaze in the hollows of their eyes and my body was Helen’s and my mind was a whale’s. I was fifty million years old. I would live for fifty million more. She would make sure of it. When I shriveled and shrunk into dust she would exhume me, she would dig out my bones and make meat of me again.

Have you seen it? No, but can you imagine? The glint of bone amid sand, the hollow eyes of whaleskull peering out of red-blasted shale. Have you sat in the tombs of those cracked and shifted saints, have you heard their story? Geologists know next to nothing about how the Sahara was created. A quarter of a million years ago this valley was the seafloor, fringed with thickets of mangrove and lurked by ancient great mammals, crocodilians, patient vines. It was warm, with a breeze to the air and fruits drooping low in the trees. Pregnant fish and gnashing teeth. Now it sees less than one millimeter of rainfall a year. Why? Surely a natural process, the slow gargantuan lurch of tectonic plates and fickle seas. Surely, surely. I thought so too. 

The next day we dug. I fought my hangover with gallons of water and some hashish I’d confiscated off the undergrads. The cave came out of itself, first the ancillary rock, and then the bones, piece by piece all carefully marked, skeletons of one specimen and another laid out on the surface. It took until the following evening for me to realize Khalaf was missing. 

We assembled the team around sundown and confirmed what I’d hazily perceived already: the biologist was gone. No one knew where he was. There were no vehicles or supplies unaccounted for, and nothing disturbed in his tent. His shrubs stood in the twilight, surrounded with measuring sticks and weighted-down notes, as though he’d simply risen in the middle of his work, raised his arms toward God’s blue sky, and dissolved into the air. 

The next morning we found his turban blown against a rock formation a half mile from camp. It was covered in blood.

Immediately the project dissolved into panicked debate. All excavation was paused while we decided how to proceed. My grad student, suddenly asserting himself after four years of pitiful deference, demanded we pack up and drive at full speed to Cairo. Helen countered that Khalaf’s death, while tragic, was extremely likely to have been an accident of overexcited and unassisted rock climbing (a known pastime of the exuberant biologist), and that it was imperative to the project’s core objectives to complete the excavation of at least the main cavern before retreating to the civilized world. The undergrads were split about evenly, torn between shock and a drive to finish the job at all costs. At any rate, as Chair of the project, the final decision fell to me.

We continued digging for one more week.

And during that week there were no further events. Khalaf’s body was not found, but neither were we actively looking for it, focusing instead on delivering the whales from the cave. We turned up seven specimens: five easily identifiable as known species of the genus Basilosaurus, and two which I suspect will ultimately be revealed as new species. All wonderfully well preserved. I confess I remained in good spirits despite the unfortunate fate of Khalaf. Helen stayed in my tent two out of the six nights in question, and our time together was marked by the kind of feverish ecstasy only known to people who discover genuinely new knowledge, that rare cream of humanity who can see through time, who swim in the wake of titans, who look into dust and find oceans.

She spoke intensely about the petroglyphs, about those Mesolithic wanderers who painted themselves among whales. People who never saw the sea, who never could have known such creatures existed. Imagine those nights so long ago, when the Earth must have felt so incredibly young, and it’s not so hard to imagine whales coursing the skies, sifting the stars through their primitive teeth. It’s not so hard to imagine a world where God had a little something to say about things. Or maybe our geological history of the Sahara is wrong. Maybe the climate changed slower than we thought, maybe the seas and the deserts and rivers were blurred in a way that our theories do not accurately represent. Surely this Valley is a codex, Helen said, a way to understand those mysteries of the bygone sands. I kept as much of her skin against mine as I could. I soaked in her words like a lunatic. I knelt at the altar of Helen Abushaaban as though she were not a Professor of Geology but a high priestess untethered in time, her soft skin woven of goddess fabric, her lips fat with ambrosia, her nails the knives that carve cliffs in the desert. Two nights of seven. That’s all.

It wasn’t the second disappearance, on its own, that put an end to the operation. Being perfectly honest, I was so enraptured by that cave and its whales I might have continued. We lost our star digger, the Canadian undergrad with the cropped hair and glasses, and still I might have lobbied to carry on until we had all our bones packaged for Athens. I think of my mindset then, all soaked in sweat and whiskey and Helen, and I feel a rot in my soul which I’m sure can never be cured. No, even the sight of what remained of the girl’s body, that mauled and mangled lump of flesh, wet in a pile in the sun near the cave, would not have stopped me. It was the things we found afterward, the things that turned up one by one over that blazing afternoon, that had me panicked in the Jeep before sundown, and tearing up the Giza-Luxor Road by midnight.

In the latrine: two pairs of hands, severed from their bodies, the skin peeled off, fingerbones pressed together in gestures of prayer, rising above a floodplain of shit.

In Helen’s tent: crude drawings across the nylon. Stick figures and the hieroglyphs of great toothed fish overhead, all handpainted in blood.

In the cave: a human skeleton, handless, zebra-striped with dried blood and draped in tattered flesh, nailed to the stone between two whales, posed as if swimming.

I remember falling to my knees there. My resolve vanished, my body and soul collapsed. Helen stood beside me with a cold stare. Dark eyes trained on that fresh new fossil. I asked if she did it. There was blood all over her tent. Did she do it? She said nothing. Her eyes scanned the cave. Petroglyphs, whales drawn in blood. Stick figures. Men of pure bone. They raised their hands to the whales and the whales passed by. I grabbed pathetically at Helen’s thigh and demanded to know. Was this her doing? What had overcome her? And if not her, who? Why? How? Helen was silent. She placed a cold hand on my hand on her leg and that was all. She did not speak another word, not to me or the students, as if language had been taken from her altogether.

It took seven hours to reach Cairo. 

When we fled, I made sure everyone had a seat in a vehicle and beyond that I made sure of nothing. The specimens are still onsite, I presume, still properly arranged and half-cataloged. I expect the University will send another party to recover them sometime. It will be one of the greatest discoveries in the history of Cenozoic paleontology. It will be popularized as a minor detail adjacent to a terrible crime. 

I understand Helen is the prime suspect in these events, owing to the application of the victims’ blood to her tent in particular. I have no opinions on this. I don’t know whether or not she is capable of those actions, whether she had a motive to carry them out, or whether she could have done so without my knowledge. In fact I have no hypothesis as to any of it. As unscientific as it is, the most I can offer is that the cave changed something, as though we entered the cave from a world where these things wouldn’t have happened, and returned to a world where they would. Perhaps some hard evidence will turn up once the appropriate personnel visit the site. But I suspect not. I suspect, when the next expedition reaches that far crag of the Valley of Whales, all they will find is two new skeletons among the old. New shapes, new memories, new stories to add to the grand, rushing river of time. 

But I think about those petroglyphs, those whales impossibly known, who were recorded beyond time, beyond reason. Maybe there is no reason. Maybe science only takes us so far and then we just draw pictures. Maybe there are only bodies buried and unburied, and buried again. We know nothing of the sand or the sea. I used to want to know. I don’t think I do anymore.

— Karter Mycroft is a writer, musician, game developer, and ocean scientist who lives in Los Angeles. You can find them on Twitter @kartermycroft or at

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