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

Petrobras is a two-time Income Investor selection. Atwood Oceanics is a Stock Advisor selection. Fool contributor Toby Shute doesn't have a position in any company mentioned. The Motley Fool has a deep disclosure policy.