Deep in the wilds of Tennessee, treasure hunter Rich Aloha approaches a beautiful waterfall. Barely able to contain his excitement, he dons his heavy equipment and plunges into the cool water. Beneath the surface, he discovers lost relics from nameless swimmers past. But then, he stumbles across a sunken GoPro – and an incredible story unfolds.
In the hot southern summer, the falls are a magnet for those looking to escape the sweltering weather. But often, visitors leave things behind – sunglasses and softballs that tumble into the deep water, for example. Most of the time, these items are never recovered. Thanks to Aloha, though, some of them will see the light of day again.
While most of the relics recovered by Aloha were likely of little value to those who lost them, some of the items were clearly once-treasured possessions. And when he discovers the abandoned camera, he’s excited to see what the footage might contain. But in his wildest dreams, he could never have guessed what this object would reveal.
The story began in the summer of 2019, when 27-year-old Aloha, whose real name is Richard Abernathy, visited Foster Falls to film a video for his YouTube channel. A self-described treasure hunter, he is also a freediver – practicing a type of diving that involves holding your breath rather than using specialist equipment to explore underwater.
In May 2009 Aloha, who’s from Florida, launched his own YouTube channel. And there, he’s uploaded a number of videos documenting his adventures over the years. For example, his first contribution features him freediving at Wekiwa Springs State Park, a sprawling green space with emerald waters near Orlando, Florida.
In the video, Aloha can be seen exploring caves beneath the surface of the springs – all on just a single breath of air. Then, the following year, he uploaded some more freediving footage. This time, he ventured into the crystalline blue waters of Florida’s Alexander Springs and created a remarkable phenomenon known as a bubble ring.
A favorite of both freedivers and scuba divers, bubble rings are made when pockets of air become caught in a vortex underwater. In layman’s terms, this means that divers can achieve fantastic effects when they blow bubbles beneath the surface. And in Aloha’s video, he can be seen lying on the bottom of the springs before creating an impressive ring of air that rises through the water above him.
By 2017 the quality of Aloha’s videos had improved greatly, and that December he uploaded another piece of freediving content. In it, he traveled to Salt Springs in Florida, where he donned a mask and flippers to explore the clear waters with a friend. But this time, he was in for some surprises underwater.
In the video, Aloha and his friend can be seen having a close encounter with a turtle before coming face-to-face with a manatee. Then, four months later, the budding videographer announced that he was leaving college in order to pursue his dreams. And in the meantime, he continued to post footage covering topics such as freediving, wakesurfing and adventure tech.
As well as being a dedicated YouTuber, Aloha was also a follower of Seventh-day Adventism, a branch of Protestant Christianity. In March 2019 he announced that he’d be spending 12 months working as a missionary in the Pacific nation of Guam. And before he embarked on that journey, an adventure a little closer to home ended up strengthening his faith.
On August 21, 2019, Aloha uploaded another video to his YouTube channel. And this time, he was trying his hand at a different kind of diving. Equipped with scuba gear, he’d traveled to Foster Falls Recreation Area, a remote and scenic spot in the wilderness some 45 miles from Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Part of South Cumberland State Park, the picturesque Foster Falls is served by a trail that runs from the top of the 60-foot waterfall to the base of the gorge. And as such, it’s a popular spot for swimmers looking to cool off in the Tennessee heat. But as Aloha soon discovered, sometimes these visitors leave unintentional souvenirs behind.
Aloha filmed himself giving an introduction to this upcoming “epic adventure.” Apparently, he planned to go treasure hunting in the falls, on the look-out for things that had been dropped by swimmers or walkers in the past. “I might be finding a drone, or an iPhone, maybe a GoPro,” he enthused. “And if I’m really lucky, I might even find some cash.”
In the video, Aloha is shown arriving at Foster Falls, tired from carrying his heavy equipment along the trail. Having reached his destination, he dons the scuba gear and dives down into the pool at the base of the waterfall. At first, however, it seems as if there’s nothing exciting waiting for him beneath the surface.
As Aloha swims through the murky waters, though, items begin to catch his eye. And before long, he’s made his first discovery – a black beaded bracelet accented in gold. Triumphant, the diver slips the treasure onto his wrist and continues with his mission. Moreover, it isn’t long before further relics begin to reveal themselves.
Next, Aloha spots something half-buried in the riverbed. Brushing the sand away, he reveals a piece of jewelry glinting in the light. Could it be someone’s wedding ring, seemingly lost forever at the bottom of the falls? As the diver inspects his discovery, his muffled voice can be heard cheering through his regulator.
After pocketing the ring, Aloha can be seen continuing with his dive. And next, he discovers a smart pair of aviator sunglasses resting on the riverbed, the first of four sets that he’ll eventually recover from the base of the falls. Then, moving onwards, his eye is caught by an empty turtle shell, although he leaves that relic with Mother Nature where it belongs.
Moments later, Aloha spots something white and round on the riverbed – a softball that’s somehow made its way down to the base of the falls. And after giving it an obligatory toss, the diver continues on his journey. Next, he stumbles across the first great discovery of this adventure: a dust-covered GoPro camera resting on the bottom of the pool.
First available in 2004, GoPros are portable action cameras that have become beloved of extreme sports fans around the world. But because they’re often used to film outdoor adventures, it isn’t particularly unusual to find them in the rivers and mountain ranges of our world. And sometimes, the footage on them can be used to reunite them with their rightful owners.
At first glance, however, Aloha couldn’t tell if this GoPro was still in working order. Nonetheless, his excitement is obvious in the video, as his cheers can again be heard coming through his breathing apparatus. And after waving his find enthusiastically at the camera, he can be seen demonstrating that the light from the flash is still operational.
Next, the film shows Aloha continuing with his dive and recovering more sunglasses from the base of the falls. Then, he spots something tiny and silver sticking out from the riverbed and glistening in the light. He grabs it and pulls out a second GoPro – this time a more advanced-looking model.
Again, Aloha’s muffled celebration can be heard through his diving regulator. And although the screen of the second GoPro is cracked, he brings it with him to the surface. After removing his mouthpiece, he explains what will happen next. “This waterfall was such a hit,” he enthuses, still clad in his diving gear.
“I can’t believe we found two GoPros,” Aloha continues. “We’ll review the footage and see if I can’t get that back to the rightful owners. But this is definitely one for the books.” At the time of filming, however, the adventurer had no idea about the incredible story that was about to unfold.
During his visit to Foster Falls, Aloha also encountered some park rangers who informed him about a tragic incident that had happened in the area back in 2017. That June, a Georgia native named Richard Ragland had drowned at the waterfall. However, there were still some unanswered questions surrounding his death.
According to Aloha, the rangers asked him to keep an eye out for anything that might be linked to Ragland’s death. “They said if I find anything that was from 2017 of an African American male, that it might happen to have been that guy,” he told WSB-TV in August 2019. So when Aloha retrieved two GoPro cameras from the bottom of the falls, he must have wondered if they had belonged to Ragland or his friends.
Amazingly, Aloha soon discovered that the SD card from the second GoPro was still intact. And when he watched the video, he spotted something incredible on camera – the face of the man who’d drowned at the falls two years earlier. “I was going through the footage and sure enough, I just said ‘Oh my god, this is the guy,” he explained.
Soon, Aloha realized that he’d stumbled upon footage of Ragland’s final moments on Earth. As a result, he began to research the 22-year-old’s tragic tale. Apparently, Ragland was from Sandy Springs, a city on the outskirts of Atlanta, and had been a soldier with the National Guard. The young man had harbored dreams of becoming an actor as well.
In fact, Ragland had had been chosen to appear in an Atlanta-based film before tragedy hit. Then, in June 2017 he and some friends decided to drive some 200 miles north to Gatlinburg in eastern Tennessee. During the return journey, they stopped off in Foster Falls State Park, where the aspiring actor hoped to capture some footage of the picturesque waterfall.
At some point, however, Ragland encountered difficulties. And even though he was a strong swimmer, he found himself being dragged beneath the surface. According to reports, Calvin Haynes, another member of the group, tried to help Ragland but was unable to reach his friend. Eventually, however, Ragland was retrieved from the falls.
People at the scene carried out CPR on Ragland. But even though emergency personnel soon turned up, they were also unable to revive him. Eventually, the young man was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead – leaving his parents to mourn a life cut tragically short.
“Richard was full of life, he was such an amazing son, and the relationship that he and I had was just, it was a blessing,” Robin told WSB-TV in 2017. In addition to their grief, Ragland’s parents still had questions about how their son had lost his life. “What happened?” his father Gary asked. “What got him to the point where he couldn’t get himself out of the water?”
Just weeks after Ragland’s death, his parents were given a glimmer of hope that their questions might be answered. Apparently, another visitor had managed to capture footage of their son at Foster Falls. However, the video in question then went missing before they were able to see it.
After that, Ragland’s parents might have given up hope of receiving any further information. But they didn’t count on the determination of Aloha and his treasure-hunting abilities. After the adventurer realized what he’d found, he set about tracking down the relatives of the dead man in the footage.
Initially, Aloha used Google to try to locate Ragland’s parents in a bid to return the footage to them. And he eventually managed to contact them by telephone, before making a trip to deliver his discovery to the bereaved couple in person. “The SD card was intact, all the footage was there,” the dead man’s mother told WSB-TV. “It was like an out of body experience.”
Ultimately, Ragland’s parents were able to take comfort from the footage, which captures their son enjoying an adventure with friends. “What we’ve seen so far is Rich being Rich, living life to the fullest,” Robin explained. Now available online, the video appears to have been filmed during the young man’s road trip and shows him enthusiastically partaking in different activities.
In one shot, Ragland turns to the camera and explains how he’s not a fan of staying still. “When you chill, you actually stay stagnant in life,” he explains. “And I’m all about progressing, all about advancing to that next step. So what if you could chill and move at the same time?” After delivering that line, the young man can be seen stepping off a platform and speeding through a forest canopy while attached to a zipline.
Later, the footage shows Ragland standing on a wooden platform above the forest, explaining his philosophy of life. “All you gotta do is make a decision, to get good at something that’s worth actually getting good at,” he explains. “You start to not take your life for granted and not allow people to manage your life. I didn’t want anybody to manage my life.”
The most heartbreaking moment in the footage comes towards the end. In this shot, Ragland can be seen swimming in the very pool where he would lose his life just hours later. However, the young man’s parents were struck by just how happy he seemed as he laughed and posed with friends.
Speaking to WSB-TV, Ragland’s parents explained how grateful they were to Aloha. “For him to go through the effort to do his research, make numerous phone calls – he didn’t give up until he got in touch with us and that means the world to us,” Robin explained. As of August 2019, though, they hadn’t yet been able to bring themselves to sit through the final moments of the video.
Aloha, meanwhile, is convinced that his faith helped him to discover the well-concealed camera. “I strongly believe that God led me to this GoPro, because the only thing I saw was the end tip of the thumbscrew and everything else was just covered in muck,” he explained. Whatever it was that prompted the unlikely discovery, it has helped to ease the grief of two people experiencing every parent’s worst nightmare.