Last week several right whales were spotted off the Vineyard, and the Gazette ran a story about it. Of course any appearance of the endangered whales is highly unusual and newsworthy.

But there is something far beyond their scarcity that makes whales such revered and sympathetic creatures to humans. “Their physiology and anatomy induces a certain degree of awe,” said Michael Moore, director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Marine Mammal Center. “They are inherently beautiful things. The grace of a whale is an incredible privilege to observe.”

As the history and lore of whales illustrates, however, the relationship between whale and human can be complex, controversial and contradictory. People have hunted them and saved them; exploited them and protected them. Alaskan Inuits are known to hold whales in the highest esteem—fiercely defending their habitats against oil and gas interests—but still harvesting bowhead whales. To the Australian Aboriginals, the whale is thought by some to be a treasured, immortal ancestor. In the early 1900s, one killer whale off southeast Australia used to alert a fisherman and his family when a whale it had killed was ready for human consumption; in return, the killer whale would be allowed to eat the tongues of its victims. When Yankee whalers were looking for harpooners, a good number of them came from the Native American populations of the Vineyard and the rest of New England, who also view whales with great reverence.

The ambiguities of the human-whale relationship are played out everyday in clashes between fishermen and conservationists, and at places like Sea World, which must reconcile its showcasing of the spectacular orcas—one of which drowned a trainer in 2010—with keeping the animals in captivity. “The animals,” said Mr. Moore, “are sharing their frustration of being kept in captivity.”

It is indeed a delicate balance, gauging how much to love and protect whales versus allowing them to be free; how much to fish other sea creatures while prohibiting the harvesting of whales. Many scientists agree that whales generally would be better off if we left them alone—and that includes whale lovers as well as hunters. But as we have demonstrated repeatedly over the years, real life is just not that simple.

Meanwhile, the simple pleasure of viewing these magnificent creatures as they make their appearance in the waters around the Vineyard remains a thrill for those lucky enough to experience it.