The last time we took a look at the level of rates charged by deepwater contract drillers, Transocean (NYSE:RIG) showed that near-term availability continues to command a premium in this market. The company pulled down a handsome $530,000 dayrate from Noble Energy (NYSE:NBL) for work in the Mediterranean Sea, beginning in September 2010. That followed on the heels of a $510,000-per-day contract award by Petrobras (NYSE:PBR) for a multiyear spin on the Cajun Express.

These rates are well off Transocean's (NYSE:RIG) record rate awarded by Eni (NYSE:E) last year, but they're still princely sums.

This week, Transocean landed a contract for the last of its ultra-deepwater (i.e., 7,500 feet or more of water depth) rigs with availability in 2010. The Deepwater Horizon has made waves lately, drilling a well to record depth in the discovery of BP's giant gusher in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico. Clearly satisfied with the rig's performance, BP has signed a three-year contract extension at $544 million, or around $497,000 a day.

That's about a 6% slip from the rate Transocean got with Noble, but it's important to note that that award only covered 15 months of activity. BP got a slightly lower rate by offering some significant terms on this deal. Transocean shareholders should be quite pleased with this arrangement.

For anyone long the drillers, be it Noble (NYSE:NE), Atwood Oceanics (NYSE:ATW), or Pride International (NYSE:PDE), the key at this point is to watch contract awards for the "out" years, meaning 2011 and beyond. That's the true test of ongoing deepwater demand. I have a hunch about where rates are headed, but I'm interested to hear what you think.

Atwood Oceanics is a Stock Advisor selection, and Petrobras is an Income Investor recommendation. Try any of our newsletters free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Toby Shute doesn't have a position in any company mentioned. Check out his Motley Fool CAPS profile or follow his articles using Twitter or RSS. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.