For several years now, I've been documenting the deepwater dance marathon. This is my name for the continuous push by oil majors into deeper and deeper waters offshore, in search of black gold. An important early step in the multiyear exploration and resource delineation process is to secure offshore leaseholds on which to drill. For that reason, I've been keeping a close eye on bidding rounds in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, conducted by the Minerals Management Service. The results are always illuminating.

In late 2007, we saw the biggest Central Gulf of Mexico lease sale in more than a decade. This was the first time that I became aware of Cobalt International Energy (NYSE: CIE), which was a recent IPO no-show. (And yes, I still think this one is significantly underpriced.) In March 2008, the industry set a record with $3.7 billion in high bids, with Anadarko Petroleum (NYSE: APC) and its partners coughing up $105 million for a single lease block. That purchase wasn't in vain -- Anadarko and friends hit oil on this block, at their Samurai prospect, last year.

As we plumbed the depths of the financial crisis, the deepwater dance unsurprisingly dwindled. The March 2009 lease sale brought only $700 million in high bids. Devon Energy (NYSE: DVN) was notably absent, perhaps foreshadowing the company's exit from the deepwater. Noble Energy (NYSE: NBL) showed up to play, however, signaling its financial fortitude.

Last year there was a flurry of deepwater discoveries, including BP's (NYSE: BP) Tiber prospect and Anadarko's remarkable string of successes. With explorers gaining an increasing grasp of the geology, and oil prices rebounding into a range that's supportive of deepwater development, Gulf of Mexico lease sales are regaining some sizzle. Last week, the latest Central Gulf bidding round drew $949 million in high bids.

Maersk Oil -- whose recent attempt to snap up some of Devon's choice deepwater assets was pre-empted by existing partners like Petrobras (NYSE: PBR) -- made a big splash, with 63 apparent high bids. Independents turned out in large numbers, with Anadarko and Mariner Energy (NYSE: ME) making the highest bid on a single tract this time around. Also interesting was a resurgence of bids in shallower waters. We'll explore the significance of that data point in another article.

Petroleo Brasileiro is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, 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.