Ocean Park's new draw is seen as educational - and exploitive Hong Kong's conservationists yesterday had mixed reactions to Ocean Park's launch of its Dolphin Encounter attraction. They raised concerns about safety, animal stress, possible disease transmission and the mercenary use of the marine mammals. But animal protectionists were also quick to applaud efforts to raise popular awareness about the pressures of pollution, overfishing and congested waterway traffic faced by the dolphin population in the Pearl River Delta. Under the latest initiative by Hong Kong's biggest tourist attraction, more than 1,500 people a year will be allowed to feed, swim and play with four resident bottle-nosed dolphins. The decision to launch the interactive attraction two weeks ago - capping the limit to six visitors a day - followed a three year consultation process with other high-profile aquariums including Sea World in San Diego, Sea World on the Gold Coast in Australia and Discovery Cove in Orlando, Florida. 'The most emotional issue is whether or not the animals should be handled,' said Ocean Park director of zoological operations Suzanne Gendron. 'And if they were wild animals the answer is definitely not ... but the animals here are not wild animals. 'They are highly trained performers. And they are here to act as ambassadors to inspire and engender respect for the animal kingdom.' Ms Gendron said several measures had been implemented to ensure the dolphins remained in good health: their stress levels were monitored, blood tests were taken to guard against disease transmission, and safety and educational controls for visitors were enforced. 'We plan to keep the programme low-key for another few months. 'But those who have been through the programme say it is an awesome once-in-a-lifetime experience. 'So many people say they are incredibly touched by the interaction between human and marine mammal. 'And they all go away motivated to do more to help with the conservation of our wildlife and the incredible biodiversity of China's ecosystem.' Chinese University associate professor and Hong Kong Marine Biological Association spokesman King Ming Chan said: 'Only when we only touch them can we try to appreciate how they behave in captivity. 'Without the touch it is hard to imagine how this mammal survives in water and appreciate how fragile and spectacular they are.' He said the most controversial aspect of the attraction was using the dolphins as if they were a 'money-making machine'. Ideally, the profits from the attraction should be directed towards conservation, he said. Clarus Chu Ping Shing, World Wide Fund for Nature Hong Kong assistant conservation officer, who has experienced the attraction, said he supported the project. Although he was concerned that a stream of visitors would be allowed into the pool and encouraged to touch the dolphins, he said conservation of the mammal in the wild also had to be considered. 'If they can ensure the education and conservation message is delivered and the programme properly run without harassing or stressing the animals then this is not a bad thing.' Asian Animal Protection network spokesman John Wedderburn said he was opposed in principle to the idea of keeping free-swimming mammals in concrete pools for the entertainment of humans. 'I oppose captive breeding because we are breeding a race of prisoners who are locked in concrete cages and pools and not living free as they were born to be,' he said. 'But having said that, Ocean Park is one of the best dolphinariums in the world, with good facilities, first-class medical attention, and the animals are trained with positive reinforcement rather than punishment.'