One of the leaders of a private search for Sir John Franklin's lost ships in the Northwest Passage denies he was planning to look for the vessels this year.

The Nunavut government threatened Rob Rondeau of ProCom Diving Services and his team with criminal charges if they searched for the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror without an archeological permit.

Rondeau received a letter to that effect from the territorial Justice Department last week while he was in the hamlet of Taloyoak.

Nunavut government archeologist Julie Ross said Rondeau's team was trying to launch a search for the ships — which have been missing in the High Arctic passage for more than 160 years — even though the group had been denied a territorial archeological permit this year.

2 Arctic projects

But in an email sent to CBC News late Monday, Rondeau said the government did not realize he is actually working on two projects in the Arctic:

  • The search for the Erebus and Terror.
  • A hydrographic survey in Larsen Sound, testing new remote-sensing equipment for a group of European energy companies.

Earlier this week, Rondeau said he could not comment on the legal threat because he had a non-disclosure agreement with the Discovery Channel.

A spokesperson for the Discovery Channel told CBC News that Rondeau was in Nunavut last week to conduct some preliminary research, not a search.

But Ross said she does not buy Rondeau's story.

"Their intent is an archeological search for the ships, regardless of the name they want to give it, a.k.a, a hydrographic survey," Ross said Monday.

In his email, Rondeau said he will comply with all rules and regulations associated with a search.

Ross said a permit was denied to Rondeau's group because it had little experience in Arctic marine archeology and it did not consult with Inuit in nearby communities.

Follow the rules: historian

Franklin historian Louis Kamookak of Gjoa Haven, who is involved in a separate search sponsored by the federal government, said it's important that Rondeau's group follow the related rules, which would include consultations.

"The regulation says that you have to have a permit ... regardless if you are from the South or from the North," Kamookak said.

"If it's research on Franklin or any other historical sites or wildlife, we always have people come in and do community [presentations] or consultation to make the community well aware of the project."

Kamookak added that if the private group plans to search for the Erebus and Terror next year, it should consider going out in early August, since bad weather is more likely in late August and September.

The federal government's search, which is being led by Parks Canada, began last year but was put on hold this summer. It is scheduled to continue in 2010.