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Designing materials to function in harsh environments, such as conductive aqueous media, is a problem of broad interest to a range of technologies, including energy, ocean monitoring and biological applications1,2,3,4. The main challenge is to retain the stability and morphology of the material as it interacts dynamically with the surrounding environment. Materials that respond to mild stimuli through collective phase transitions and amplify signals could open up new avenues for sensing. Here we present the discovery of an electric-field-driven, water-mediated reversible phase change in a perovskite-structured nickelate, SmNiO35,6,7. This prototypical strongly correlated quantum material is stable in salt water, does not corrode, and allows exchange of protons with the surrounding water at ambient temperature, with the concurrent modification in electrical resistance and optical properties being capable of multi-modal readout. Besides operating both as thermistors and pH sensors, devices made of this material can detect sub-volt electric potentials in salt water. We postulate that such devices could be used in oceanic environments for monitoring electrical signals from various maritime vessels and sea creatures.