© 2014 Elsevier B.V. A low-cost optical sensor for monitoring the aquatic environment is presented, with the construction and design described in detail. The autonomous optical sensor is devised to be environmentally robust, easily deployable and simple to operate. It consists of a multi-wavelength light source with two photodiode detectors capable of measuring the transmission and side-scattering of the light in the detector head. This enables the sensor to give qualitative data on the changes in the optical opacity of the water. Laboratory tests to confirm colour and turbidity-related responses are described and the results given. The autonomous sensor underwent field deployments in an estuarine environment, and the results presented here show the sensors capacity to detect changes in opacity and colour relating to potential pollution events. The application of this low-cost optical sensor is in the area of environmental pollution alerts to support a water monitoring programme, where multiple such sensors could be deployed as part of a network.