LORDS OF THE ARCTIC: A Journey Among the Polar Bears. By Richard C. Davids. Photographs by Dan Guravich. Macmillan. 140 pp. $29.95 FOLLOW THE WILD DOLPHINS. By Horace Dobbs. St. Martin's. 263 pp. $15.95; DOLPHINS AND PORPOISES. By Richard Ellis. Knopf. 270 pp. $25; THE DELICATE ART OF WHALE WATCHING. By Joan McIntyre. Yolla Bolly/Sierra Club. 144 pp. $12.50

"THERE IS NO END to the joy of bear-watching,"writes Richard C. Davids in Lords of the Arctic, a lively, richly detailed profile of "Ursus maritimus, the polar bear . . . arbiter of five million square miles of snow and ice."

Yet, although known since antiquity (polar bears were kept as pets by kings, Roman emperors, and -- as hieroglyphics inexplicably attest -- in Pharaonic Egypt), little of scientific import was learned of the creatures until recently. Spurred by threats to the bears' existence, scientists from the "polar bear nations," Canada, Denmark, Norway, the U.S.S.R., and the U.S.A., now actively study the bears' life cycle.

Davids and photographer Dan Guravich, unashamedly polar bear lovers, spent five years avidly following these investigations. Traversing the Arctic by helicopter, ship, tundra buggy, and dogsled, they watched bears (and were watched by them, often uncomfortably close) and collected the observations of researchers and native people. The result is a treasury of polar bear lore skillfully blended with the latest biological data on these magnificent and endangered beasts.

"I would like every lover of nature to know polar bears," says Davids, "not the neurotic creatures penned up in dismally small cages, but bears as the Lord intended them to be." Which is huge ("a typical adult male weighs half a ton . . . when he stands erect he can look an elephant in the eye"), fast ("he moves . . . on level ground . . . at thirty-five miles an hour"), and remarkably adapted to a perpetual deep-freeze ("what makes polar bear fur extraordinary is a characteristic recently discovered by researchers . . . the fur produces a greenhouse effect, trapping solar energy . . . independently of solar angle").

Guravich's striking color photographs show bears in mock battles (behavior never before described or photographed), caring for cubs, and wandering the ice in search of ringed seals, their primary food.

"All mankind has a stake in the Arctic," writes Davids. "For every species of plant or animal we exterminate by accident or design, we diminish the beauty, the excitement, the grandeur of our planet, reduce it to a life of asphalt and golf balls, survival and little else."

Horace Dobbs, filmmaker, conservationist, and diver, has also spent years studying marine mammals, described in Follow the Wild Dolphins. But Dobbs focuses primarily on "Donald," a 12-foot, 750-pound wild bottlenose dolphin who freely associated with humans for six years along the English coast.

Amiable and insatiably curious, Donald teased divers and fishermen, played with children, and "appeared to take a special delight in disrupting the activities of serious-minded humans." (Dobbs says there is also evidence that Donald aided two potential drowning victims by pushing them toward help.)

Not everyone could touch or approach him, but those graced, like Dobbs, became the stuff of dreams: "When Donald swam to me I gently grasped his dorsal fin . . . Donald accelerated out toward the sea. It was low water and I could see the dark green kelp and bright yellow sand passing in a blur underneath me as I set off on another switchback ride that set me tingling with pleasure and excitement."

Once, six months after Donald mysteriously vanished from the Isle of Man coastline, Dobbs was randomly diving off Wales when "out of the misty waters came the cheeky gray face of Donald. . . . He came to inspect me briefly, nodded his head and flashed away. . . . Who would believe me? We were over 200 miles from his old haunts."

Why would a lone dolphin (they normally travel in schools) seek out humans? Science has no explanation. Dobbs, a scientist himself (in veterinary research) waxes mystical, suggesting that Donald may have been "a dolphin ambassador to humanity." Outrageous? But Donald was real and so are the concerns this engrossing book raises about our ethical relationship to other species.

In Dolphins and Porpoises, Richard Ellis deplores our destruction of these animals and their habitats (one Pacific fishery alone has killed "some six million dolphins . . . since 1965"). And, like Dobbs, he wonders about the mysteries surrounding dolphins. But Ellis is conservative ("the idea of talking to dolphins -- and expecting them to answer -- is anthropocentrically arrogant"), warning us to "see the animal as a dolphin, not as a semihuman that just happens to live in the water, waiting for us to strike up a conversation."

His book is encyclopedic but eminently readable, a definitive natural history of dolphins and porpoises (confusingly interchangeable terms, says Ellis). Over 100 photos, drawings, and color paintings by Ellis, an excellent marine artist, bring these wondrous creatures to life. All 43 species are discussed, from the obscure tucuxi (the "sacred dolphin" of the Amazon Basin) and the rare vaquita (a Gulf of California variant that may become extinct "before anyone gets a really good look at a living specimen") to the familiar bottlenose, pilot whale, and Dall porpoise ("graceful little animals . . . pawns on the international fishing community's chess board").

Beyond their mystique, as Ellis demonstrates, the facts alone of dolphin-porpose life are amazing: consider their incredible ability to echo-locate food and objects, (the Ganges River dolphin, "almost totally blind," was able instantly to locate and inspect a lead ball "just over 1/8 inch in diameter") or the possibility that some dolphins can generate sounds loud enough to stun or kill their prey (little is known of how dolphins catch their food and "ensonification" remains an intriguing possibility), or that various dolphins and whales will aid others when injured, supporting the victim or pulling it to safety ("It is possible," Ellis says cautiously, "to assign to them some sort of instinctive compassion").

Dolphins and Porpoises, a companion to Ellis' previous The Book of Whales, will be welcomed by cetologists, divers, and wildlife enthusiasts.

But lest the charms of delphinology lure you into briny fantasies, read Joan McIntyre's The Delicate Art of Whale Watching before you pack your snorkle. This is not, as the title suggests, however, a Baedeker of whales. Rather, it is an introspective essay written by a woman intent on sounding her own depths.

McIntyre, former president of San Francisco's Project Jonah, which tries to educate the public about cetaceans, burned out ("I had seen my own best intentions turned into stupidity") and retreated to a Pacific island, to the ocean, "the essential doctor, the great healer."

And, having long dwelled on the consciousness of whales and dolphins (her first book was Mind in the Waters) she pondered human consciousness and the possibility of achieving "that essential grace the universe bestows upon herself so carelessly . . . to travel lightfooted . . . fully conscious on this earth."

We cannot do this merely by whale watching, a metaphor for our restless voyeurism, "our hunger for easy experience," says McIntyre. Awash in the baggage of vicarious living, we become adept at watching -- not seeing. Cameras and recorders ready, we assault the natural world "as if the moon could be held, or the whale's voice carried in a suitcase." And by projecting our spiritual needs onto nature we "bind ourselves into a circle of illusion, and turn the sea into a circus because we have so much desire."

McIntyre's book is quirky, cranky, a mix of mysticism, poetry, and angst. But it works. Her probing leaves us unsettled, looking for answers when what we really need are better questions. For whether we contemplate whales or polar bears or ourselves, the simple truth is that, as Thoreau observed, "This world is far more beautiful than it is convenient."