Last week, the Minerals Management Service conducted the biggest Central Gulf of Mexico lease sale in more than a decade. In case you had any doubt, deepwater is still bringing in the dollars. The average bid per block touched a new record, and the total number of bids submitted more than doubled last year's total. This dance just keeps heating up.

The top of the bidders' list included some familiar and expected names, like Chevron (NYSE:CVX), Petrobras (NYSE:PBR), and Marathon Oil (NYSE:MRO). Marathon already has prospects in the Walker Ridge and Green Canyon areas, which drew some of the most interest in the bidding round. It makes sense, then, that the company bid a fierce $345 million to firm up its acreage positions.

One player that's new to me is Cobalt International Energy, a private operator backed by Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) and the Carlyle Group, among others. Watch out, Shell -- Cobalt is shelling out more than $200 million on its high bids. This shows that the newcomer is serious about going toe-to-toe with the big boys, and it ought to be an interesting one to watch.

The biggest beneficiaries of this deepwater dash are, of course, the service companies. Drillers like Atwood Oceanics (NYSE:ATW) are a logical way to play this theme, but if dayrate volatility makes you seasick, there are seismic shooters like CGG Veritas (NYSE:CGV) and subsea swashbucklers like Helix Energy Solutions (NYSE:HLX) to consider as well.

Related Foolishness:

  • Enthusiasm on Wall Street for the shallow water has ebbed.
  • Some small operators are hitting it big where the majors no longer tread.
  • We're still scratching our heads over this offshore driller departure

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.