What happened

Shares of underwater robotics specialist Oceaneering International (OII -0.69%) shot out of the water this morning, rising 11.5% through 10:30 a.m. EST after crushing analyst earnings projections for fiscal Q4 2020 last night.

Expected to lose $0.20 per share (pro forma), Oceaneering delivered instead a $0.02 per-share profit (also pro forma).  

Robotic fish underwater near a rock

Image source: Getty Images.

So what

That's a pretty big beat, even if Oceaneering did "miss" slightly on revenue (doing $424.3 million in business during the quarter, instead of analysts' hoped-for $425 million). And yet, the news wasn't unqualifiedly good.  

Sales for the fiscal fourth quarter declined 24% year over year, and total sales for the year declined 11%. When calculated according to generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP), Oceaneering's Q4 profit was actually a loss -- $0.25 per share -- and it lost $5.01 per share for the full year.

Year over year, those losses were better than Q4 2019 (when Oceaneering lost $2.66) but worse than 2019 as a whole (when it lost $3.52).

Another plus for the company: Q4's free cash flow was good enough that it wiped out cash burn from all three preceding quarters. For the whole year, Oceaneering generated $76 million in cash profit.

Now what

And Oceaneering says it will do it again in 2021. "Our priority continues to be generating cash," said the company. And guiding investors on what, specifically, to expect in 2021, management said it will "yield positive free cash flow in excess of the amount generated in 2020" this year, with positive operating profits. Revenue will be "relatively flat" -- which is at least better than down again -- assuming "no significant incremental COVID-19 impacts and generally stable oil and gas prices."

Simply put, after a long descent, Oceaneering seems to have finally found the ocean floor -- and it's ready to ascend again.