For two years, Robin McCrear wondered what happened to the last video footage her son recorded before he died.
Her son, Richard Lee Ragland III, 22, drowned in June 2017 near a waterfall in Foster Falls State Park in Tennessee, she said. It was a devastating loss for Ms. McCrear, 51, who described her son as charismatic, popular and driven. “We just miss him so much,” she said. “The joy, the energy.”
She knew that Mr. Ragland had been recording his travels with a GoPro camera, which he had carried with him into the water. But the little machine had never been found.
So Ms. McCrear said she was speechless this month when she learned that a stranger had located her son’s footage in Tennessee and was bringing it to her in Georgia. “To receive that phone call — oh my God, it was a dream come true,” she said.
The stranger was Rich Abernathy, 27, a diver and YouTuber from Florida who goes by Rich Aloha. He found the GoPro on July 27 and soon discovered that the footage it had captured — still crisp and clear — seemed to belong to the young man whose death had made local headlines two years earlier.
When Mr. Abernathy checked old news reports and looked at the video time stamps, everything matched up. “That’s when I said, ‘Oh my God, this is the guy,’” he said.
The GoPro had captured several different clips of Mr. Ragland smiling at the camera as he documented his trip; they were published by WSB-TV, an Atlanta news station. In one scene, Mr. Ragland is riding on a zip line in a forest. In another, he is dancing to Michael Jackson’s “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” in a parking lot. In one of the last, he is laughing with his friends near a waterfall.
[Video: Watch on YouTube.]
“This is what life is all about,” he says in the video, holding his camera on a selfie stick and gesturing to his two friends and the view around him. “Being with brothers and sisters, we living life. This is only the beginning.”
Two years later, Mr. Abernathy’s own footage showed him diving underwater near the same spot where Mr. Ragland’s videos ended. He scanned the floor and saw something boxy amid the rocks, highlighted by one gleaming screw. Mr. Abernathy could be heard cheering as he shook the machine free of the brown muck: It was a GoPro, with a cracked screen.
Mr. Abernathy has built a YouTube and Instagram presence around scuba diving, free diving, travel blogging and exploring with his adventure cat, a Bengal Maine coon named Yogi Bear. While diving, he often finds lost treasures like smartphones, wallets, sunglasses and GoPros.
He said he does his best to return what he can, sometimes reporting found items’ serial numbers to companies in case their owners try to track them down one day.
The dive in Tennessee was different. When he visited Foster Falls, he said, a park ranger told him that a man had lost his life there in 2017, and that his GoPro might still be there under the water. Mr. Abernathy didn’t expect to find it, but he did.
[Video: Watch on YouTube.]
As he watched the footage, he saw a person he could have been friends with. Both he and Mr. Ragland went by Rich. Both were entrepreneurial strivers trying to build lives on their own terms. And both had been drawn, across state lines, to visit the waterfall just west of Tennessee’s Highway 150.
It took some time for Mr. Abernathy to track down Mr. Ragland’s family. Eventually, he found a number for Ms. McCrear’s husband, Gary McCrear, 53. Mr. Abernathy called — no answer — and then texted. When he said his name, it gave Mr. McCrear pause.
“The text message said, ‘Aloha, my name is Rich,’” Mr. McCrear said. “Well, right there, I’m like, O.K. — Rich?”
But eventually the two spoke, and Mr. McCrear determined that it was not a hoax. He and his wife met Mr. Abernathy at a Panera Bread in Atlanta.
“When we sat down and talked to him, I was like, you have a lot of similarities to my son,” Ms. McCrear said. “You don’t want to punch a time clock, and Rich didn’t want to do that either. You want to be able to travel and live life to the fullest.”
She added that seeing the footage — Mr. Abernathy showed her snippets during that meeting — was amazing and difficult at the same time. “I just cried myself to sleep that night,” she said. “But I woke up the next day and I had a smile on my face. I dreamed that I spent the day with Rich.”
Ms. McCrear said Mr. Ragland was a National Guard member and former homecoming king who was also an actor, a member of the step team, and an athlete who participated in track, football and basketball.
“There was no fear in him,” Mr. McCrear added.
Both said they had yet to watch all of the GoPro footage, which is more than an hour long altogether. Ms. McCrear said she wanted to take it all in slowly. And she never wants to watch the part where the video ends.
But what she has seen so far shows her son acting like the leader he always was, she said. “It was emotional,” she said. “And it was like, oh my God, look at my baby. It’s like he’s right here, like I can touch him and hold him.”
Mr. Abernathy said he thanked God for the chance to deliver Mr. Ragland’s footage to Mr. and Ms. McCrear. “It means so much that I could bring something totally invaluable and priceless to them,” he said.
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.