Purchased for $20,000 after her capture in 1970, Lolita the 22-foot-long orca has spent the last nearly 50 years of her life living in a ridiculously small tank only 60-by-80-foot in width and 20 feet deep. It's the smallest whale enclosure in North America.

For decades, activists have argued that the conditions of her captivity are nothing short of animal cruelty and what earned her the world's loneliest orca nickname. While repeated legal attempts to have Lolita re-introduced to the wild or transferred to a marine sanctuary have failed, a ruling in Feb. 2015 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) renewed hope. The organization determined that Lolita, a Southern Resident killer whale, deserves the same protected status as her wild kin under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

"As presented in the proposed rule, we find that Lolita's captive status, in and of itself, does not preclude her listing under the ESA," NOAA said in a statement. "Accordingly, we are removing the exclusion for captive whales in the regulatory language describing the Southern Resident killer whale DPS [distinct population segment]. The best available genetic information and sighting history of killer whales supports recognizing Lolita as a member of the Southern Resident killer whale population and, as such, is not excluded from the listed Southern Resident killer whale DPS."

While the new designation didn't mean Lolita would immediately gain her freedom, it did provide animal rights organizations with a new legal angle to secure her transfer. Jared Goodman, director of animal law at PETA, told TakePart.com that Lolita's small enclosure, coupled with her complete isolation from other members of her species, likely violates the ESA.

“Her listing means that she’s now protected from harm and harassment, [and] we intend to be sure that those protections are enforced,” he added.

In reaction to the news, Miami Seaquarium's general manager Andrew Hertz remained unmoved, saying that the marine park will not reconsider Lolita's current situation.

"Lolita is healthy and thriving in her home where she shares habitat with Pacific white-sided dolphins," he said in a statement. "There is no scientific evidence that ... Lolita could survive in a sea pen or the open waters of the Pacific Northwest, and we are not willing to treat her life as an experiment."

Ever since Lolita was declared an endangered species, animal rights activists have worked to retire her, by suing the marine park for violations of the protections afforded by the ESA, reports the Broward Palm Beach New Times. In May 2015, PETA, the Orca Network and the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) filed a lawsuit against the Seaquarium, saying employees were "committing harm" to an endangered animal. However a federal judge dismissed the case in June 2016, saying that the injuries brought up in the suit instead should be addressed under the Animal Welfare Act.

Activists are not giving up. Concerns remain that the captive orca would have difficulty fending for herself if she returned to a life in the wild or possibly fall victim to disease transmission.

“The ultimate goal is for Lolita to be retired to a coastal sanctuary in her home waters, where she can feel the ocean currents and interact with other whales swimming by,” PETA's Goodman said.

You can see for yourself the concerning size of Lolita's "Whale Bowl" enclosure via recent aerial drone footage below.

Michael d'Estries ( @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.

'World's loneliest orca' receives endangered species protection
Lolita, a wild-caught whale that has lived at the Miami Seaquarium for nearly 50 years, is still in her small enclosure.